A Brighter Tomorrow: Leading the Way

Education always provides two functions — to select and to educate. A nation’s education system functions on behalf of society to decide what kind of talents, knowledge, and skills are useful and what kinds are not. It is intended to cultivate the ones that are valuable and suppress the ones that are deemed undesirable. Catching Up or Leading the Way

In our district’s curriculum meeting room — the room where all new teachers meet on the first day in the district, the room where content area teachers gather to discuss textbook adoption, the room where RTI committees meet to discuss teaching strategies — hangs many pithy posters. One in particular, however, catches my eye every time I walk into the room. I don’t remember the name attached to the quote, but the rest of it glows luminescent: praise the behaviors you want to see.

Such words seem self-evident. Duh.

The education realm, unfortunately, all too often operates under the deficit model. Focus on what is wrong or missing or insufficient and, well, your problems will loom even larger.

In his book, Catching Up or Leading the Way: American Education in the Age of Globalization, Yong Zhao acknowledges the weaknesses of and the challenges facing the education system of the United States. But he doesn’t dwell on them. In fact, he focuses on our strengths, the things that make us great and amazing and delightful. Pointing out the similarities between “various historical hyperpowers”, Zhao discusses our ability to be “extraordinarily tolerant, inclusive, and pluralistic” (52).

One of the strengths of our education system is that (because of our tendency to embody the above) we have a diversity of talent within our borders. Talent diversity is vital to the health of a nation. According to Zhao, we should be pursuing talent diversity rather than everyone on the same page at the same time in order to achieve the same score on the same standardized test:

  1. Different talents complement each other.
  2. Talent diversity breeds innovation and encourages innovators
  3. Talent diversity prepares societies for change.

His admonition is a valuable one: instead of trying to play “catch up” with the rest of the world and require that our students score competitively on standardized tests, we should “lead the way” and foster talent diversification, digital competencies, and cross-cultural awareness and abilities.

Just because politicians and pundits like to point to international test scores, the true assessment of our education system should be in terms of innovation, ingenuity, and inventions. If we’re truly unable to compete in those three areas, then our education system does, indeed, need overhauling — though, certainly, not in the realm of standardized testing. Heaven save us from the test bubble.

Education Innovation: Seek Disruption

Can I just admit that I thoroughly loved Disrupting Class? I know this isn’t particularly proper (and I’ve never adequately mastered the appropriate level of ennui and disdain for all things I encounter), but, honestly, who the heck cares?

And my adulation isn’t entirely undeserved.

Because the authors begin with such a thorough discussion of the original (and subsequent) purposes for public education in the United States and because they give such high marks to teachers and administrators for changing targets mid-stride and adapting to new goals, purposes, and strategies without blinking or missing a beat, it’s rather easy to get caught up in the world of “disrupting class.”In fact, it’s downright enchanting.

And — even as a veteran teacher — it’s easy, really, to accept their indictments against the current status of education. When they write that “a profession whose work primarily was in tutoring students one on one was hijacked into one where some of the teacher’s most important skills became keeping order and commanding attention” (Christensen, Horn, & Johnson 2008), I find myself nodding in agreement, scribbling notes in the margin of the book.

But it’s neither the praising nor the scolding that capture my imagination and engender hope for our educational future. The authors analyze the situation with honesty, clarify the challenges without blame, and point to a brighter future with strategic clarity. The concept of disruptive innovation — and the examples they include to discuss its possibilities — is beyond engaging. It is electrifying.

When Christensen et al point to “well-intentioned but flawed funding formulas that penalize per-pupil funding of schools when a student takes an online course” (105), however, it occurs to me that so much of education is carried out with well-intentioned but flawed thinking. Under the auspices of disruptive innovation, though, we can debride the decay and renew the system’s overall health. For example, initial public reaction to asking parents to cover a portion of the cost of online courses (provided they were taught in a student-centric way) is bound to be highly negative and, no doubt, controversial. After all, initially, only higher SES families could afford to do so. However, according to Disruptive Innovation theory, as these families led the way, prices would fall and all would benefit.

Unfortunately, there are too many who would cry foul and block such innovation and progressive thinking. This archaic way of thinking tends to lead to increased government regulations, which only stifle innovation. The examples within “Disrupting regulated markets: Lessons from other industries” are very clear: while the government seeks to “protect” us, it actually serves to smother us (142). But once parents (and students) can “assemble products that cater to the individual needs of their children; and teachers [can] design programs that help their students learn,” then we are closer to making student-centric education a reality. The evolution of student-centric education becomes, then, like any other innovation that we’ve witnessed. For example, in the beginning, programming html websites was difficult and specialized work. But it led to products like Frontpage which led to Blogger and WordPress — and then more and more templates — until, finally, a blog can “look” and “act” like a website, meeting the various needs of the site owners.

Thus, student-centric learning will evolve as the users determine the need. In other words, as teachers, parents, and students self-diagnose, determine need, and seek instructional tools that meet these needs, the way “learning” and “teaching” look will evolve. This type of education world requires honest inquiry, tough assessment, brave venturing, and — above all — creative and innovative thinkers who refuse to settle for mediocre education.

After all, if we focus on the red herrings, ask the wrong questions, allow ourselves to be distracted, it’s rather easy to avoid the real issues in education.

Play (re)Defined

Confession: while I enjoyed reading Julian Dibbell’s Play Money in which he describes the year that he quit his “day job and made millions trading virtual loot” (after all, it was witty, self-deprecating, even lyrical at times) , I found myself deeply disturbed.

I felt uncomfortable, as if the light was too bright, too searching, too revealing. My emotive response was one of “I don’t want to know this” and “I don’t want to think about this” and “Wow, this really pisses me off.”

I decided that this was a natural reaction of an ex-MUDDer who preferred to look back with nostalgia.

But such flippant dismissiveness is unbecoming for fledgling doc candidates. So I considered the sense of repulsion from as many angles as I could afford. I felt much better once I admitted to myself that I have very strong beliefs on play and work and the lines between. In fact, the more I thought about it, the more strongly I felt.

It really came down to these two concepts:

1. Play connotes choice. I can choose to play. I can choose to stop. In fact, I can stop at any time and there are no consequences beyond the immediacy of this particular game.

2. Work connotes responsibility. I must work in order to live. My personal welfare (and that of others who depend upon me, either directly or indirectly) correlates directly with my ability to find and keep a job.

Thus, once I am required to “play”, the transition into workdom begins. If ever I discover that no real life consequences exist for either the continuance of “work” or the cessation of it, those series of actions cease to be work — and can actually morph into play.

This sense of work vs play also figures into whether or not “cheating” is wrong. In life, our survival often depends upon our creativity, ingenuity, and willingness to find alternative routes. Such maneuvering is not considered cheating — it’s simply survival (Note: this does not apply to you if you’re a politician who evades paying his taxes while increasing the percentage the rest of us pay). In the play world, however, fairness and playing by the rules is almost a requirement. Choosing not to play by the rules (unwritten or otherwise) within a game paints said player as untrustworthy, contemptible, kinda dirty, even.

Thus, for me, any discussion of work or play or the gray shadowland between is incomplete without a thorough exploration of aforementioned points. And this is where Play Money disappoints.

Heroic Play

Odysseus, clever and creative, has just told Polyphemus, the Cyclops (and Poseidon’s son), that his name is Nohbody. My 9th grade students frown a little over the spelling, wrinkle up their noses. Where is this going? Even now, however, students understand that an innate sense of playfulness follows Odysseus even into his more serious misadventures. This playfulness enriches the story even as it expands the hero’s creativity and innovation.

Enter the drinking and hot poker scene — and then, when the blinded Polyphemus bellows in rage that “Nohbody has blinded” him, the students start to smile. Odysseus and his men escape the wrath of fellow Cyclopes and all is well. That is, until Odysseus taunts the son of Poseidon with his given name.

The students groan. They knew the escape had been too good to be true. This sparks a heated debate regarding the qualities of a hero.

Subsequent class discussions range from character traits to fatal flaws to personality tests. Students take a lean version of the Myers-Briggs Personality Test and explore their own characteristics and tendencies before returning to dissect the character of Odysseus.

Personality is but one lens through which to view the world. But when Dibbell, author of Play Money, referenced Roger Caillois and his — apparently complimentary — view that play is “an occasion of pure waste,” I couldn’t help but recall some of the basic differences between “judging” and “perceiving” types. For example, a tendency of the former is to focus on “work before play”, while the latter prefers to mix business with pleasure.

If the definition of play depends upon the individual toying with it, how then do we go about communicating with one another at all? It’s not just the definition of play that confounds us, then: it’s this constant defining, redefining, and renegotiating of terms. On the other hand, isn’t this precisely what humanity has always struggled with? Our ability or lack thereof to communicate? Haven’t we fought wars over this discrepancy between meaning? Divorced our spouses? Sued our neighbors?

Play Money forces me to take a new look at the definition of play — and the future of our gaming selves — and I’m not certain I like where we’re going.

The Ethics of a Digital Life

(Cross-posted at Ideaplay.org)

The attack came out of no where. I had just slipped out of the Thieves’ Guild intent upon securing the Gem of Flawlessness, when I tripped right into a caltrop. I was trapped, and the assassin hacked away at me without remorse. I struggled to fight back, wielding a sword and double-wielding a dagger, but he was bigger, stronger, more skilled. I died, screaming. I had been pk’d.

It was 1995 and I was 19, playing an ascii-based online MUD called Styx. Yes, very old school.  And, although I’d certainly died from encounters with monsters, it was the very first time I had ever been pk’d or player killed, a term which refers to one player killing another player.

I was equal parts furious and crushed. Even though I played a game which allowed pk’ing, how dare a complete stranger ambush, trap, and kill me?

Fast forward 10 years, and we find the now infamous story of an online gamer actually killing a friend over a virtual sword. Three years later, in 2008, a woman is arrested for virtually “killing” her online husband. Ridiculous and pointless events. Lives destroyed for absolutely no reason. I shake my head. But a part of me remembers the pk’ing incident, and for a moment I can empathize with the fierce “real-life” passions that rage in response to virtual life happenings.

These are all examples of cross-cultural clashes. Most of us have figured out how to negotiate the cultural mores within online communities, but there are few of us who have actively contemplated their existence. In fact, we might be surprised to think of the virtual world as a third space or even as a different culture. However, if we do view the virtual world “as a foreign culture we must interact with” (Zhao 2009), then the set of skills required for successful habitation is a valid topic for discussion.

Typically, when our virtual lives overlap our physical world selves, we know what to do. We know how to act, how to behave, how to adapt. We know, intuitively or not, that the virtual world and our physical world are not the same, do not operate by the same rules, or even utilize the same language. We have, somehow, cognizant or not, become fluent with the ethics of the digital life.

But have our students? Sometimes I think our knee-jerk reaction to such a question is: of course they have, they’re digital natives, after all. But a glance at the comment section of YouTube or any online newspaper, for that matter, or posts left on a forum will convince us otherwise. Most have certainly mastered Twitter and Facebook and uploading their own YouTube videos, but have they mastered the rules of conduct for this distinctive culture?

Ethics are notoriously slippery creatures, difficult to nail down, harder to define. And yet, we operate under them, recognize them when they’re being abused, miss them when they’re absent. What are we doing as educators to ensure that our students are introduced to and educated in the ethics of the digital life?

As we stand at the precipice of a digital tomorrow, we find an educational world torn: some school districts are gingerly sticking one toe into the digital water, ensuring only that students have keyboarding classes, while others are jumping in headfirst, placing iPads in the hands of students directly. This disparity muddies the water, prompts us to look, instead, toward tech adoption as the answer to our current challenges. Our instinct is to direct our conversations toward cool projects — wikis, and VoiceThreads, and digital stories, and prezis — instead of opening a dialogue concerning behaviors and attitudes and actions in the virtual world. Instead of asking whether or not our students have access to the latest software innovation, we should be asking: how are we preparing our students for what they’ll encounter online? How do we teach them what is acceptable? What is not?

My questions, then, are to you: are there ethics to be learned in the virtual world? If so, are there specific ones that we should teach to our students? Are there any that you currently attempt to instill in your students (or own children)? Which ethics should be taught, how do you instruct, and do how you assess?

Conversely, do you feel it’s not an educator’s job to instill ethics of any sort, digital or not?

Do share — I’m looking forward to hearing your thoughts!

Photo Credit: WadsonGems & webaxes

Fostering Community: F2F vs online

When people feel cared for, understood, and honored, they are more open to others, interactions, and new material. In a way, when social or personal needs are met, deeper levels of learning are more likely to occur. An effective teacher will establish classroom routine (this allows for a certain amount of safety, boundaries, and an understanding of failure to comply with group norms), a genuine sense of community (which allows for trust, openness, engagement, and motivation), and a commitment to excellence (which communicates that all students are capable of high levels of achievement and expected to participate to the limits of their best abilities). These components are essential in F2F classrooms because they allow for the greatest amount of time on task and thus learning. By establishing these within our classroom, we are honoring the learner and the time he/she has dedicated to being in our class.

Effective online classrooms have the same components: an established routine (e.g. check-ins and check-outs; reflections and peer responses, consistent deadlines etc), a sense of community (e.g. base groups), and a commitment to excellence (e.g. pointing out examples of excellence, providing feedback that is positive and helpful, etc). When these are present, the online community flourishes, as is evidenced by a flurry of non-required responses, attention to detail beyond the minimum, or even work beyond what is required.

Challenges that face the online instructor consist of many that the online world as a whole faces: it’s difficult to “read” online body language or gauge the intent or motivation behind a response or action. However, in creating a positive learning environment online, instructors can attend to creating structures that mimic F2F ones. A very real challenge, however, is the time factor. Participating in an online course seems to take far more time, energy, and thought than a F2F one does. Every word, phrase, or sentence must be carefully analyzed for hidden meaning; all ambiguity must be stripped away; emotion must be consciously woven into responses. A F2F instructor can give a friendly touch on the arm or a commiserating smile, a connection that may be enough to soften a grade, provide motivation, or influence behavior. It’s much trickier in an on-line setting.

Establishing relationships between students is much more difficult as well, especially if the students in question have little experience in online learning environments. Therefore, it’s very important for an instructor to be aware of the needs of an online classroom, aware of the structure that needs to be put into place, and aware of the various ways to communicate with and to students regarding a vast array of challenges unique to the online environment as well as the typical coursework issues.