Saturday, January 16, 2021

The Need to Be Skeptical and Critical of STEM Education and Business Demands for Certain Kinds of Graduates

"...it was in the 1990s that shop class started to become a thing of the past, as educators prepared students to become 'knowledge workers.'" Matthew B. Crawford, Shop Class as Soulcraft

I recently read Matthew B. Crawford's book Shop Class as Soulcraft, which I highly recommend for all educators. This quote from the beginning of the book captured my attention immediately because the book as a whole outlines an important mindset educators have been neglecting when it comes to thinking about the kinds of graduates we should be producing. The prevailing thinking today is that public education's job is to produce the kinds of workers that business and industry currently demands. To me that is shortsighted and a disservice to our students and society.

The education system has taken on the role of distributing people in the niches needed by business and industry. In the case described by Crawford, when business calls for "knowledge workers," the system reacts and cuts funding of some programs and distributes students into the chosen learning niches of business and industry. The problem with the education system reacting in this manner, is that they place students in niches that might be short-lived due to business and industry's concerns with short-term profits and benefits. 

Business and industry rarely has only the long-term interests of students and people in general in mind. Hence, the evidence of this is their decisions to move entire production lines overseas or to lay workers off for the sake of short-term stock benefit. Education systems that purely have their students' interests in mind will look with a skeptical eye towards the kinds of workers called for from the private sector. It does not mean that the system ignores them entirely, but educators need to remember that the way business ideology is currently constructed in the United States especially, is more libertarian and tilted toward the idea that what is best for them is what is best for everybody. A quick glance at history immediately dispels this illusion. Maybe instead of shoving students into the STEM niche, we need a broader consideration of their potentials and interests. Niche-learning limits possibilities rather than increases them despite what the pro-business and STEM evangelists would have us believe.

Educators need to be critical and skeptical of claims made by politicians regarding what kinds of graduates are needed. We can certainly listen, but we also need to remember that they are obligated by current economic and business ideology to look after themselves. Shoving every student into some STEM approach to education or making sure every student can program might not be in some students' best interest. As Matthew Crawford laments in his book, the decline of shop class to produce so-called 21st century workers might not be the best course for our students. We are still going to need shop mechanics, bricklayers, carpenters, and other trades, and there can be great satisfaction in doing this work as a life-long career. We are also going to need writers, artists, musicians. Let's remember that programs like STEM education and other initiatives can place limits on students' futures rather than possibilities.

Saturday, July 18, 2020

The Real Reason Why Remote Learning Failed: It's Our Educational and Philosophical Foundations

Could it be that all this insistence and scrambling to find ways to get students back into our schools during an exploding pandemic is simply our society's unwillingness to let go of the twentieth-century, assembly-line schooling model?
What if the issues with remote learning is not the technology at all, but symptoms of an educational system that just used that technology to try to apply the assembly-line educational process which only works with a child seated in a classroom with a teacher in front of them and not a child sitting at a computer or with a device at home? (Of course we knew this process does not work for every child either.)
Take the design of a learning management system. It is an electronically structured class with the teacher at the head and students as subordinates (in most cases, that is how it is used.) It still requires some of the same assembly-line processes to ensure that the student-product is being advanced. Grading is inherent in these systems. Attendance is in there. Often, the activities students are being subjected to are simply e-versions of what they would be doing if they were present in a classroom. In others words, all our technologies, even those we use in remote learning like our learning management systems, testing systems are simply more of the same of what we would do if we had students sitting in classrooms. No wonder we can't see the results we want. It simply is no longer possible.

Then there's all this talk about students "being behind." Peter Green, blogger and writer, asks a very pertinent question here: "Behind what exactly?" (See "Everything's Made Up and Nobody's Behind") He goes on and points out the obvious, that this line or point where students should be is "made up." Also, the whole idea that students should travel down a education-system prescribed path where their progress should be measured is made up too. This is not a natural idea that exists out there. Like the decision to place students in grades, which was a factory-assembly line idea, it is made up. Perhaps what we've really discovered here is not that remote learning doesn't work; perhaps remote learning and this pandemic crisis has made all too clear the foundational and philosophical limitations of our educational systems.

For example, all this talk that students are "behind" due to not being able to physically sit in our seats in our schools is early twentieth century factory thinking. It is adherence to the notion that we have to subject students to an assembly line and quality-control test them along the way to make sure they are being produced properly. Now they can't always be in our presence, so we're lost. Our factory assembly line pedagogies no longer work.
Our testing-quality-control systems can't be applied, so, we are frantically seeking ways to bring them back into our buildings once again so we can grow them and measure them once again. We just might have not really rethought our educational system during this crisis; we've simply tried to apply factory thinking remotely.

What if we were to completely rethink everything? Then what exactly needs to be rethought? Here are some things to chew about:
Idea That Government Prescribed Standards Are a Must: Standards are assembly-line necessities. Now the first thing an educator is going to say is that you have to have standards. Maybe, but perhaps standards need to be rethought in true remote learning. Maybe instead of being rigid markers of OUR chosen path to progress, they need to entirely personal too. Maybe they need to be flexible and adaptable to student needs and interests. Maybe they need to take some other form other than a rigid mark by which we judge if students are progressing or behind. In the remote world, perhaps having rigid standards will not work.
Idea that Education is a Treatment Students are Subjected to: Education has long had what I call "medical profession envy." We want to be "diagnosers," and "interventionists," and "prescripters." In that enterprise, we have a frame of mind that sees education as something "we do to students" rather than something they choose to participate in. In that educational thinking, the assembly-line pedagogies still exist no matter how much we talk about personalized and individualized learning. Just maybe, it's time to let go of the "medical profession envy" and all the pedagogical processes and practices that go with it, and rethink what we do. Maybe, start with the natural state of each child, what they know, what they need. and what they want to learn. These ideas aren't new. They just aren't efficient, which is perhaps the last area that needs rethinking.

Idea that Education Must Be Efficient: The idea that education must, above all, be efficient has been a fetish of educational leaders and politicians since our educational administration forefathers uncritically adopted Taylor's "principles" scientific management at the dawn of the twentieth century. Over the course of American education history, we've sacrificed many of our young at the altar of this business principle. When students historically cause inefficiencies in the system, such as refusing to comply, or refusing to learn in the prescribed manner, we've labeled them as deviant, abnormal, and even failures and often tossed them out or placed them in "special programs" to keep the main assembly-line going. The truth is: education and learning can and often is the most inefficient process of all. It does not happen on demand, even when we like to think that the application of this technique or that method will make it happen. We are often left scratching our heads, trying to figure out why that didn't work. In our efforts to push out remote learning, perhaps we still hang on to the notion that it all has to be "efficient" for us, and do not really focus on what would work for each child.
Sadly, like many educational practices and notions, it is very possible that "remote learning" will end up on the slag-heap of educational technologies with the likes of open-education and other tried methods that simply would not work given our tenacious grip on current philosophical and educational thinking. In our efforts to make education and educational leadership a practical endeavor instead of a scholarly and philosophical enterprise capable or real critical intellectual examination, it is no wonder that remote learning has been found wanting. Just maybe like every pedagogical technology, remote learning works for some and not others. We still search for that "one-way" to educate even though it is as much a myth as it was in the 19th century.

Thursday, February 20, 2020

A Really Helpful Twitter Tip for School Administrators, Teachers, and Anyone Else

Since I joined Twitter in 2008, I've seen it evolve and transform in ways that I liked and in ways I did not. I've also evolved as a Twitter user and social media user in general. But recently, I really took time to examine my Twitter feed, and I really did not like what I was seeing.

If your feed is perhaps like mine, there were about 8 to 10 people who tweeted so often and prolifically, they dominated my feed. I would scroll down, and see multiple tweets, retweets, and likes from these same people over and over and over again. They were actually preventing me, unless I scrolled through their endless contributions to my feed, from seeing many of the others I follow. It's as if these individuals were "yelling so loudly, they were drowning out all the other voices I've purposely followed.

What did I do to resolve this issue? It was rather simple actually, I unfollowed these feed dominators. I took some time and examined my timeline and observed these shouters and simply clicked the unfollow button.

Now, I've begun to see some of the long lost individuals that I followed that had all but disappeared from my timeline. Like a room with a lot of shouters trying to scream ever louder to be heard, I got rid of the "chief-noise-makers." Now, I can once again see many of those who might have something more substantial to say.

Admittedly, I was once one of those shouters myself. I tweeted, retweeted as fast as I could click the Tweet Button. But with time, I've come to some conclusions about Twitter specifically and social media generally: How can anyone hear anything with all the shouting going on that room known as Twitterverse? I also come to realize that by constantly blasting the world with my Tweets, I really wasn't contributing anything substantial to the conversation, as if such conversations are even possible on Twitter. I really did not have that much substantially to say that required such constant clicking.

Perhaps fundamentally, that's what's wrong with Twitter and other social media. It's more about establishing a "presence" or "being seen" rather than heard, I mean really heard. True conversations happen when you get rid of the shouters, those who dominate the conversation. That's a just enough reason for me to unfollow those bombard my timeline with their tweets, and its reason enough to Tweet seldom but with substance. Maybe, then, we can really and truly connect.

Friday, November 1, 2019

School Leaders Need to Recognize How Social Media Is Broken

Social media is broken. No matter what evangelistic talk you hear from the brotherhood-for-the-advancement-of-social-media, it has some serious problems that educational leaders would do well to examine closely. Often promoted as the media for school leaders to “get their message out,” social media has become a polluted cesspool of misinformation, incivility, and deception. It is a powerful tool for propagandists and marketers who are more interested in promoting themselves, their products rather than the truth. Social media has become irredeemably infected with what Michael Lynch calls “information pollution.”

Lynch (2019) writes:

“Information pollution is dumping potentially toxic information onto the media environment. Information can be toxic in different ways, but he most obvious ways are by being false (misinformation),  intentionally deceptive and misleading (disinformation), or simply not based on any evidence at all.” (Lynch, 2019, p. 31).
Social media has become the ideal channel for distributing “information pollution.” If has dumped so much toxic misinformation sludge into discourse, we have individuals wandering about our society like zombies, enveloped in cocoons of alternative facts from which they may never escape.

When information pollution was confined mainly to supermarket tabloids, its reach was limited. Facebook, Twitter, and even LinkedIn has now replaced this tabloid rack as the conduit for the bizarre, the nonsensical. Social media has become the conduit for delivering non-sense to the masses.

Educational leaders have been encouraged to engage social media. I myself have been guilty of trying to convince them of engaging in using Facebook, Twitter...yet, I am firmly convinced that social media in its present form is a media that too easily pollutes our world with deception and misinformation. School leaders would do well to be skeptical of those who still claim that social media is a valid media.

So what should be social media’s status with school leaders? It is rather simple...school leaders need to maintain a skepticism and ethos of critique towards it. We need to come to terms with its limitations. Social media is a powerful enabler of misinformation and inauthenticity. It is not the miracle media that will provide opportunities for schools and school districts to better their standing with the public. It is simply a propagandist tool that allows users to manufacture a world in their own image. 

Lynch, M. (2019). Know-it-all society: Truth and Arrogance in Political Culture. Liveright Publications: New York, NY.


Sunday, October 27, 2019

Social Media: Tool for Manufacturing Ourselves and 'Truth'

What is the real issue with social media? Set aside the fact that entities like Facebook are selling our personal data to the highest bidder. Ignore the practice of the perpetual eavesdropping of these companies in our personal lives. What the real issue is with social media is simple: You can't believe anything you see. You can't trust that others are who they say they are. It is a place of fiction and fantasy, distortion and misinformation. It is a place where truth is whatever users determine or think it to be.

The problem at the rotten heart of social media is best described by Margaret Wheatley in Who Do We Choose to Be? She writes:
"In humans, how we define ourselves determines our perceptions, beliefs, behaviors, values. Social media enables a culture of manufactured identities, where people create any self that ensures their popularity. In the Digital Age, identity has changed from a culturally transmitted sense of self within a group to an individual one, where you can be anything you want." (p. 19)
Any technology that allows one to "manufacture" his or her identity is problematic. While it might be acceptable to "market" oneself, in social media, truth is often the fatality. The worst quality of social media is that it allows individuals to manufacture a version of themselves that is far from who they really are. They can be someone they want to be rather than be authentic.

If there's one lesson educators need to get about social media, and share with students is this: Social media is not simply a communication media. It is a media of distortion and propaganda. It creates manufactured persons. Educators of all people should be wise enough to see this rather than buying into the hype of what this industry would have us believe.

Facebook, Twitter, Linked-In aren't simply tools of networking and connection: they are tools for manufacturing identities.

Saturday, October 19, 2019

The Educational Technology Cult Is Alive and Well in the 21st Century

Does anyone else notice how "cult-like" ed tech leaders and supporters can be? They constantly proclaim salvation by technology for every educational ailment that we face. Yet, we've been on this "ed-tech binge" since perhaps the mid-1990s with very little to show for it. Why? Perhaps it boils down to a simple fact: whether students learn or not simply depends on the quality of the instructional interactions that teacher has with students during the given instructional time.

Too often, educators have made of "cult of technology" and as social media researcher Siva Vaidhyanathan writes:

"When we make a cult of technology and welcome its immediate rewards and conveniences into our lives without consideration of the long-term costs, we make fools of ourselves."

Too often, educators uncritically accept the latest tech evangelist's word regarding the promise of technology. When some other educator comes proclaiming how much this web app changed their lives, their word is uncritically accepted as gospel. I myself have been guilty of that too. The truth is, educational leaders placing their trust in salvation by technology will ultimately be sorely disappointed. We've been traveling that road for over 20 years and there really hasn't been very much substantial change in education.

Educational technology has become a bit cult-like in some ways. Those pushing technology talk a great deal about relevance in teaching and push tech solutions like that is the only way we can make instruction relevant to students. The truth is, no one really knows what will be relevant in the future, and anyone who claims that they do suffers from a level of arrogance and delusion that is dangerous.

It is imperative that we demand those making claims about technology, and any other educational panacea, provide support for their claims. We need not accept what they say as truth just because they are skillful TED talkers or excellent at providing keynotes.  We need to subject any and all claims to a level of critical scrutiny that unmasks blather for what it is. 

Vaidhyanathan, S. (2018). Anti-social media: How Facebook disconnects us and undermines democracy. Oxford University Press: New York, NY.


E-Readers, Ebook Apps and the Technologies of Distraction: Why I Read Paper and Not Digital Books

There was time I downloaded e-books with a madness. There was something exciting perhaps about instantaneously getting access to that new title or some older book I was intending to read. I've even blogged about the wonders of ebooks on this blog at some point in the past. Now, I  seldom read ebooks and increasingly I sit down with hardback or paperback copies.

I'm not really entirely sure why I've made this transformation. Part of it is perhaps the difficulty with using a device to read. It just seems easier to me to sit down with a book, turn pages, and even underline favorite passages with a pencil. Also, had all the books I recently purchased been ebooks, when I want to refer back to a book,  I just go to my office, locate the book, and flip to those quotes or ideas I've underlined. While I know you can do word searches to efficiently track exactly to the passages you want in an ebook, but I read to understand, to engage new ideas and information. I really don't give a damn about efficiency when I read. 

Perhaps therein lies the major issue with ebooks: those who manufacture e-readers and devices think I'm interested in efficiently reading a book. But that is simply not true. I am the most inefficient reader there ever was. I hardly read sequentially. I read back and forth and up-and-down. I also read 8 or 10 books at once, which means I am physically surrounded by them throughout the day sometimes. Sitting with an e-reader just don't provide the same experience. Inefficient reading just works for me because my mind isn't the most inefficient machine either.

Perhaps there's another reason as well. Franklin Foer writes in his book World Without Mind,

"When we read words on paper, we’re removed from the notifications, pings, and other urgencies summoning us away from our thoughts. The page permits us, for a time in our day, to decouple from the machine, to tend to our human core." (p. 230).

That seems to be the case for me too. Those infernal devices we try to read with also are devices of distraction by architecture. While reading, those notifications and pop-ups pull us away from being lost within the pages. Sure, one can remedy this by turning off notifications, but there's reason why you see so many of us sitting with screens of distraction in the first place...these devices of addiction are designed to disperse our attention and not focus it. It's less possible for me to get distracted from paper pages within in a book. And, if the book is really engaging, the world around me dissolves into irrelevance.

I occasionally will pull out my Kindle app on my iPad and read a bit, but to be honest, it is just when I need some time-filled, not when I want to seriously engage a book. This is because a hardback or paperback wasn't designed for multitasking, and when seriously reading and wanting to get lost in a text, the last thing I want to do is multitask. Perhaps this fundamentally captures the nature of these devices we all have now: they aren't designed to focus our lives and attention; they are designed to distract us, and that is contrary what it means to read a book.