The edtech “Ban/Not Ban” Discussion is Misleading

The underlying origin of any edtech “ban/not-ban devices” question out there is the gap between what is taught in elementary and middle school, and what is expected that secondary and post secondary learners ought to know. The gap being the digital literacy skills that many people feel should be taught at a young age, similar to reading skills, study skills, and even cultural norms like “how to behave in a classroom” and the ever-vague “socialization”.

If one believes this, that elementary kids need to learn digital literacy skills, then this is a question of what needs to be included in education goals and curriculum. There is not much worth in bringing it into the ban/not-ban question, which is a useless question to ask or answer.

A flat ban on devices ignores technology’s impact (let alone many learners’ access to content and preferred literacy), and conversely a mandate that teachers must use devices because it is “best” is technology infatuation that prioritizes digital literacy as a class goal over whatever the subject matter is. Both are wrongheaded, and both fail to consider the situation.

An educator designing their course needs to look at each activity/lesson and decide whether to include modern technology or not. It may be that one day devices are useful for that activity, the next they are a distraction. Devices are often superfluous, when technologies like pen, paper, desks, and spoken word are more suitable. If educators want to teach learners “self-regulation” then they should practice and model it in their class design.

(Furthermore, and I say this because I don’t see it enough, the first question to ask when deciding about technology/device use is “What is the content?”)

The Little Girl at the Window

Having eyes, but not seeing beauty; having ears, but not hearing music; having minds, but not perceiving truth; having hearts that are never moved and therefore never set on fire. These are the things to fear, said the headmaster.

Totto-chan was a grade school girl that didn’t fit into the basic school system – she couldn’t pay attention, she couldn’t sit still, she asked so many questions, she tired-out her teachers. She was always getting into things. After she was expelled from first grade her parents enrolled her in a school for outcasts run by a remarkable headmaster with such a passion for educating children that he built his own school out of used trains. His school welcomed the curiosity of children, allowing them to explore their own pursuits before offering support and structure that would help fan the flames of an ignited heart.

Years later in 1981 Totto-chan, now a famous television personality, wrote a book of stories about her old elementary school. The book, originally written in Japanese, has been translated into numerous languages and is available around the world. The copy that I read comes from my local library, and was recommended to me after some conversations about my own daughter’s elementary school journey.

There’s something wrong with the school system where my daughter goes to school. The best way I’ve come up with to describe it is that when I communicate with the school, or the school system, I have that same feeling that I do when I try to communicate with a government office, or a bank. Regardless of our words, we’re never talking about the same end point – for me it’s my individual daughter’s education; for them it’s their own internal organization. Their final goal is always about the paperwork and the process, even when they claim it isn’t.

Grade three started off with extensive standardized testing that frustrated my daughter more than she let on. In talking with her, she didn’t really understand what these tests were all about, except that they were all anyone talked about and that the computers they used for them didn’t work that great and she sometimes had to redo her work because they didn’t save. (she flailed her hands as she told me this) Last year her teacher (who has since left the school) told stories to the children, many of which my daughter breathlessly repeated to me, fascination in her eyes. She misses her last year teacher greatly – but my guess is that this year’s teacher is a kind of an all-star in the eyes of the board of education because she’s organized and no-nonsense and gets through the curriculum on time.

I would recommend Totto-chan: The Little Girl at the Window to anyone in education, chances are it’s in your local library system, wherever you are – I would recommend it because it’s full of stories, and stories are what we love and are how we learn best. It’s touching in a way that the quote at the top makes you realize that kids use their senses in amazing ways. I would even call this essential reading for those working in boards of education and for those teachers, principals, and office staff who tend to prioritized paperwork over pupils.

Distance as Center

I just finished a book called Amusing Ourselves to Death by Neil Postman. It’s a book from the early 1980s that takes a television specific look at how technology and media influence North American society. The book may be a bit dated in that TV is no longer the apex of mass communication that it was 30 years ago, although from several other perspectives many of the ideas in the book transfer well to other technology and media contexts. I love these types of books – books on tech that are just a few decades old – because they present ideas about the effects of tech and media on a simpler backdrop.

The book ends (the last 2 chapters) with some strong ideas, one of which is that education curriculum is bending toward the particular affordances of television. A related point that Postman makes is that because television is so prevalent in everyday life (he states that teenagers watch 16,000 hrs of TV by High School graduation) schools have simply forgotten to question television’s character.
Looking back at this claim from 2015, we can easily see the limitations of mere television broadcasting. And we now know that it is much better to unquestioningly prepare our educational systems for a “21st century world” in which digital technology, asynchronous communication, and social learning are the real tech and media powerhouses that the next generation will inherit. Right?
No, not right.
Despite being written in 1985 and focusing specifically on television, the 2nd last paragraph of the book provides a timeless quote:
“…it is an acknowledged task of the schools to assist the young in learning how to interpret the symbols of their culture. That this task should now require that they learn how to distance themselves from their forms of information is not so bizarre an enterprise that we cannot hope for its inclusion in the curriculum; even hope that it will be placed at the center of education.”

Growers and Mere Harvesters

A garden is one of the most common metaphors in learning and education. It’s a good one, but there are many distinctions that often don’t get sorted out at the level of metaphor, or given enough consideration to. Are gardens meant to emphasize the growth of a plant under the right conditions? Or, are they meant to show intentional maintenance of organized learning, as compared to growth in the wild?

Educational metaphors using plants-things always seem to miss the mark with me, as they tend to romanticize the growth, while ignoring the importance of restrictions.

Earlier today while reading about the economic plight of East Timor, this line jumped out at me:

“People in East Timor are not growers; they are mere harvesters of coffee.”

The idea is that, in terms of their economy which relies on the coffee beans trade, the country’s farmers are nowhere near intentional enough in how they cultivate their crop. To a large degree, they simply pick from what grows in the wild.

Education runs this danger because learning growing in our lives as widespread as plants cover the Earth. Educational settings that rely on everyday learning as the backdrop and be all of design – highly and merely social, connective, and low guidance courses – set themselves up as harvesters, simply picking from interaction that happens to take place.

Static – When Method becomes Purpose

One of the features of having planners in charge of city plans, Jacobs alludes to, is that city workings end up so smooth that the city cannot breathe or live. The purpose of planners is to ensure that everything runs smoothly, their purpose isn’t to create a successful working city. And this, she says, became one of the underlying principles of all city planning for much of the 20th century.

I brought up this point, related to education, in a post about Dewey and Perplexity. And it is not an uncommon point in education these days. Misguided is the teacher who thinks his or her job is to create a classroom that runs smoothly. The opportunities for growth and development just won’t exist in such an environment. In these unfortunate situations, the means to create the outcome replaces the outcome itself. Method replaces intentional learning. Structure comes from above like a cage door that swings downward to close, and impound.

You could probably also make the connection here between learning and learning merely to pass the test. Its a process that involves a whole lotta nothing.

He conceived of good planning as a series of static acts. (p19)

English Online and In Canada

The past few weeks have been exciting for me – I changed jobs, relocating to the opposite side of the globe in the process. I did the same thing over 7 years ago, and the move wasn’t nearly as disruptive now as it was then. For most people I relate with it wasn’t so much of a good-bye as it was a change of mode. For many people I interact with, there was no change. For me, the transition was smooth.

And it continues to be exciting – this week my new workplace announced the Canadian National Online Conference for ESL Professionals to take place next January.  One of our first steps is to recruit an Advisory Committee. It will consist of 13-16 language professionals from across the country, hopefully from a wide range of expertise, and including one international member. Details are posted here. But, this isn’t the exciting part yet (unless you’re really into committee proceedings).

I was hired in part to help produce this conference, and the reasons why I feel excitement are the same reasons I decided to accept the position in the first place: the learning structure here embraces emergent learning and promotes learner autonomy. It’s a course design that facilitates, not instructs.

English Online is an NPO in Winnipeg, Manitoba that focuses on helping newcomers to Canada improve their language abilities, and on helping ESL teachers become better at guiding their own professional development. I’m more on the teacher side of things, so I’m concerned about things like PLNs, curating resources, and building networks. But for both sides, we’re trying to adapt complexity, and a decentralized (or, as I like to think: Authentically Centralized) mindset into structured learning for the ESL profession. It’s not an easy task, for one because ESL people are not EdTech people.

You can only go as far as your learners are motivated to go, in terms of digital literacy and autonomy.

The affordances of modern communication technology potentially give access and control over learning structure to the learner. When approached in this way, teacher roles shift to focus on learner autonomy skills and self-guided skills. However, as an organization we have to ensure that learning is taking place – we even have to somehow measure and show it.

It’s an exciting context to be in because it shares a lot of the same qualities of MOOCs…which didn’t instigate these qualities into the educational scene, but brought them into the spotlight. And the MOOCs under that light aren’t the only ways that MOOCs can exist. MOOCs have potential to come in many different forms far beyond what works best for the major American Universities. People like Stephen Downes continually remind us of the potential MOOCs hold and the reasons why they were developed in the first place: MOOCs were not developed for teachers, they were developed for learners.

For example, we have to take into consideration the language learning context of our learners (language is both means and content) and this changes what we can and cannot do in our learning approach. One result of this context is that we can produce an outer ‘ongoing’ structure, challenging how educators define the C for Course in the MOOC acronym. And this is the real exciting part, I feel, that it does try to build on the development of MOOCs (or better yet, the underlying principles) in an innovative way.

To me, English Online isn’t altogether different from my LMOOC outline I posted a few months ago. It attempts to embed education into a learner’s life, with minimal unintended disruption. Moving around the globe doesn’t have to disrupt a lifestyle very much these days, why should self-improvement?

Dewey and Reflective Thinking

One of the striking things about reading John Dewey is how he is able to effectively maintain the balance between two perspectives – a practice writers often admit to doing, but rarely seem to put into practice. Commonly, it comes in the form of a mandatory sentence near the start or end of an essay that acknowledges the presence of the other view…but ends up mostly serving as a licence to ignore the weight of valid counter-arguments. This style serves a persuasive or promotional purpose, but in terms of exploring a topic, it’s lazy thought.

Dewey, as a writer, makes strong arguments for both sides of an issue (experience vs nature; structure vs freedom) constantly and consistently. It’s a tough skill committing to such a balance, but the results are worthwhile. Writers and readers can better understand which factors contribute to the tension of an issue, and thus which educational methods are useful to explore. I suspect that the social masses don’t really want that, though. Dewey would have very few readers, followers, likes or ‘friends’ were he around today.

It’s all the more reason to read him now, even if just for style.

Of course, he’s more than just a nice example of pragmatism – his ideas are propelling. Reading him has added greatly to how I understand the distinct realms of learning and education. The set-up chapters in How We Think clarified two ideas for me about humans and learning. These are two ideas that are important to dwell on nowadays, decades after Dewey wrote, as surface learning and speed of information hold great allure.

Thought as Reflection

I don’t think he ever comes out and states it directly, but to Dewey the highest order of four types of thinking is Reflection. As he explains it, this type of thinking (which he simply refers to as Thought) goes beyond observation and belief. It includes sequential ideas that are examined, and aimed at discovery.

It’s a powerful idea, Thought as Reflection. It made me realize that thinking takes time, but at the same time Reflection isn’t always some big ordeal that you have to clear your desk and turn out the lights, or go to a cabin in the woods, or even to set aside 5 minutes to achieve. Reflection happens all the time.

It reminds me of the times I’ve taught kids with support teachers who have their entire educational training based on experience in the Japanese educational system. Their main goal was to make sure that all activity in the classroom glided smoothly. This disposition often ended up undermining what I tried to do as a teacher in the class, and it prevented reflective thinking from taking place. There was never any chance for children to feel uncomfortable, to not know, to feel that perplexity essential for deeper learning.

Suspended Conclusion

Perplexity is a type of suspended conclusion – and it has been built into us by evolution. I remember once noticing we BabyMantishad these random, oversized ants here and there around our front yard. Something about them seemed different. I eventually decided to examine one closely one day and saw that it was actually a baby praying mantis. I had never seen one before, it was cool, but here’s the thing, it was exactly the same as an adult mantis except it was small and black, not green. Look at lizards, they’re the same – babies are just miniature versions of adults. Or, as Dewey brings up, a chick just out of the shell will peck and find food just as well then as at any other time in their life.

Humans are not as such. We develop after we’re born, we have a high level of brain plasticity through our first decade of life, we go through physical puberty in our teens, and some of us mature much later, and certainly in different ways, than others. Our whole being involves suspended conclusion that enables us to adapt greatly to the environment we’re born into. This has given us the ability to act on the basis of the absent and the future. Which in turn, affords us a certain amount of control over our own adaption.

Learning is a gift of nature – Reflective Thinking, Education, is not. It’s ours. Education construes Learning. It takes that of our environment (including what we were born with) and uses it for our own intentions.

Why these two ideas resonate with me is because both require patience and depth. Each day, I observe how many of us now conduct ourselves – friends, strangers, people I teach, people who try to teach me, myself – and the patience and depth qualities of lifestyle are being traded in for the high frequency and slight familiarity of awareness. It didn’t start with the internet or mobile phone, but, maybe the balance is swinging too far because of initial adoption of such technologies.

This lifestyle change is less productive for forming connections, the connections that come together inside the human node, the creative ones that we’re built for, that cannot be artificially designed. (Interesting review about connections inside humans and Stephen Jay Gould)

Do we want to be Amplifies or Composers? Well, this isn’t the choice, we have to be both. Only inside of us can we answer the pressing question: Where do you want that balance to lie?