Facts and Feelings

We are living in an age when information is no longer scarce. The Internet gave everyone access to the information. It was sold to us as an information superhighway. Think of all of the wonderful resources you have right at your fingertips with this fantastic, revolutionary technology. Then, interactive web tools came along and made it really easy for anyone to post content online. We moved away from broadcast media, where a single entity informs the masses, to a system where everyone has a voice. It’s a democracy of information. Finally, mobile technologies became practical, so those tools are now available to us wherever we are.

Information is free, in both senses of the word. Questions no longer go unanswered, opinions no longer go unshared. It’s truly a wonderful and amazing time to be living.

flat-earth-1054350_960_720But there’s also a problem. We are overwhelmed by content. When I was in school, we used to struggle to find enough information to write cohesive research papers. Now, finding enough information is as easy as a Google search. We have to be able to filter that information to find the most relevant content, evaluate the accuracy and reliability of the content we’re finding from disparate sources, and build on that knowledge to spark new ideas and new solutions to complex problems.

You’re probably still with me at this point. If you’re working in higher education, you have an anecdote to insert here about kids these days thinking that “Google” and “Research” are synonyms. Many in K-12 are thinking I’m rehashing old ideas, because we’ve been doing all of these things for years and talking about 21st Century Skills since the 21st century started. If we’re sitting in a room having this conversation, this is the point at which someone will disparagingly refer to Wikipedia. After all, anyone can change it. How reliable can that be? Once we’ve made that turn, we’re off on a track that leads to me ranting about how Wikipedia is actually a pretty reliable source because of their insistence on citations and their transparency about where the information comes from. My challenge to Wikipedia haters is to change a basic fact on the site to be wrong, and see how long that lasts before someone fixes it.

But that’s not where we’re going today. I want to talk about something more important than whether your ninth grade English teacher will let you cite Wikipedia as a source.

What if you want to mislead people? Everyone on the Internet has a megaphone. Everyone can be a content creator. Everyone can be a publisher. Let’s say I want to convince people of something crazy. Maybe I want people to think that the Earth is flat. How would I do that?

I could start by referencing the ancient Greeks, who believed the Earth to be flat until the Pythagoras came along to cause trouble. I could also refer to ancient Indians (prior to the year 300), American aboriginal traditions, or China up until the 17th century. These were smart people, philosophers and scientists, and they wrote about the world being flat all the time.

I could reference 19th century literature by the likes of Washington Irving, whose romanticized history of Christopher Columbus includes the idea that 15th century Europeans thought he would fall off the edge of the Earth.  Or, I could write about the work of Samuel Rowbotham, whose “scientific” work in Zetetic Astronomy proved the Earth is flat in 1849. Moving to the modern age, I can reference the Flat Earth Society, which has been advocating for a flat Earth model since the days of Sputnik. Finally, I can top it off with 21st century author Thomas Friedman, by taking his best-selling book’s metaphor completely out of context.

Maybe I’ve convinced you. Maybe I haven’t. Now it’s time to fire up the social media machine. I start tweeting about the Earth being flat. I post conspiracy theories on Facebook, and make catchy memes about it. People tell me I’m crazy. They start arguing in the comments. They bait the troll. I shoot back. Now, I start focusing on the buzz. People are talking about whether the Earth is flat. Look at all these conversations on the Internet about the flat Earth. Why is big media assuming that the Earth is round? Where’s our equal time? Where’s our fair and balanced?

At this point, it’s time to discredit our own strategy. Anyone can put anything on the Internet. You can’t trust what you read online. We’ve been burned so many times by misleading and biased content that we’re quick to agree with the cynical view that everyone has an agenda. Everyone is against us. Those fact checkers who say the Earth is round? They have an agenda. They’re out to get us. The impartial media? They’re not so impartial after all. They only tell one side of the story. This so-called science that proves the Earth is round? Well, we all know what they say about statistics. You can make the numbers say anything you want.

Now, this is the part that’s new. It’s time to change the story. Many people believe the world is flat. Lots of people are talking about the flat Earth. The news reports the facts. The politicians cite the facts. The fact-checkers check the facts. But the facts have changed. Did you catch the subtle shift? People are talking. That is a fact. People believe. That is a fact. This politician said. That is a fact. The Earth is flat. It doesn’t matter if that’s a fact. It’s just the object of the talking and believing and feeling. So you can say things like “Lots of people think the world is flat” and “Flat Earth proponents feel like they’re underrepresented in media.” Both of those statements are true. But that doesn’t mean they’re going to fall of the edge of the planet.

Distinguishing between fact and opinion is a lot harder than it used to be. We have to teach our children (and our parents, and our peers) to recognize those triggers of “feel”, “believe”, and “think”. Opinions are valuable. Beliefs matter. They shape our view of the world, and our actions in it. But people can be wrong. If one wrong person convinces 99 others, then we have 100 wrong people. The fact that there are 100 of them doesn’t make them less wrong, even if they feel like they’re not being heard. It’s a lot easier now for a few people to use “feelings” to mislead others. Part of being an informed digital citizen is recognizing when that’s being done to us.

 


Post script: Did you notice that almost all of those links about the flat Earth go to the SAME Wikipedia article? The links may make the text look more reliable, but cited sources are only as good as the person checking them.

Photo credit: JooJoo41 on Pixabay.

 

A More Perfect History

Last week, the College Board released a new version of the AP U.S. History Course and Exam Description. This document, last revised in 2014, outlines the content that should constitute an Advanced Placement American History course. Ideally, students taking this course pass the exam at the end of the year that entitles them to college credit for their achievement.

7522707282_46e00dc43e_zThe United States does not have a national curriculum for American History. The Common Core standards, an effort to unify the curriculum taught in American schools, only cover reading and math. The AP guidelines are the closest thing we have to a national standard for how this subject should be approached in high school.

The new standards come a year after strong opposition to the 2014 version. That revision emphasized comprehension, interpretation , and synthesis of history instead of merely recalling the names and dates of important milestones. Critics claimed that it undermined the idea of American exceptionalism, and fostered a view of American history that is too negative and political. Several states moved to ban the course from being taught in their schools.

In academic circles, we call this shift toward analysis, synthesis, and application an increase in academic rigor. As we continue to move into the age of information abundance, it becomes increasingly important for students to evaluate the information they’re getting, make connections among content from diverse sources, assess bias and frame of reference, and draw their own conclusions. They apply this deeper understanding  of history in new contexts, ostensibly to keep from repeating it.

Unfortunately, some of those conclusions don’t necessarily paint the United States in a positive light. After looking at the facts, one might conclude, for example, that the Boston Tea Party was actually an act of terrorism. Or, maybe, the strained relations between Europeans and native tribes had more to do with the Europeans dismissing them as savages, taking and destroying their resources, and constantly breaking treaties than with the natives acting unreasonably hostile toward white settlers. It’s quite possible that rounding up Japanese Americans, most of whom were United States citizens, and locking them up in interment camps after confiscating their homes and property was a heinous violation of their civil and human rights. One might conclude that detaining 780 people in the aftermath of 9/11 without charge or trial, and then systematically torturing them  over the course of a decade poses a stark contrast to the certain inalienable rights endowed to them by their creator.

Fortunately, the new version of the course re-instills those patriotic American ideals that make our citizens believe that this is the greatest country in the history of the world. Our nation is founded on the ideals of liberty, citizenship, and self-governance. Just don’t get too caught up in that definition of “liberty,” and be careful about that “self-governance” thing if you’re black or female or poor. George Washington, Benjamin Franklin, and Thomas Jefferson are fearless leaders to be revered, and have more than earned their places on our currency. Let’s set aside Washington’s blundering that would have lost the revolutionary war if the French hadn’t conveniently saved the day, Franklin’s inability to keep his hands to himself, and Jefferson’s substantial bi-racial posterity. The Declaration of Independence and the Constitution should be revered as sacred documents, unless you take that bit about being created equal too seriously, or unless the unelected Supreme Court issues a ruling you don’t agree with. We were certainly the determining factors in ending both world wars, and the U.S. is the only country who realized that the cold war could be ended by simply telling Mr. Gorbachev to “tear down this wall.” Let’s conveniently omit the fact that the United States, 70 years later, is still the only country to have actually used a nuclear weapon. Don’t get too caught up in the details. We’re awesome, and we know it.

A generation ago, I took this AP American History course. We skipped most of the dates and facts. The textbook spent most of the year in the bottom of my locker. The units focused on essential questions that were primarily answered through the examination of primary sources. We learned to interpret history for ourselves. We learned to assess bias. We learned about different kinds of oral and written accounts, and how to determine why they were created, by whom, and when. One of the units focused on the cause of the civil war. Slavery was a contributing factor. But it wasn’t the only factor, and it probably wasn’t the driving force. Slavery as a human rights issue was certainly not as important as slavery as an economic issue. But we didn’t blindly read an over-processed, committee-driven, negotiated account in a textbook about why there was a civil war. We explored the topic ourselves.

We didn’t cover most of the course. We glossed over almost all of the dates and names. I don’t think the teacher was overly concerned with our exam scores. In fact, we didn’t have any assessments or grading at all, apart from the final exam. We were intrinsically motivated, and the subject was made interesting by the approach taken by the teacher. It was certainly a time before high-stakes accountability.

I scored well enough to earn six college credits and was exempted from taking Western Civilization as a college Freshman. I don’t remember much about the exam, except that in the essay, I argued that affirmative action programs were discriminatory. I’m pretty sure I criticized Lincoln in the same essay.

I love my country. There’s video and photos all over the Internet of me waving flags and singing patriotic songs. I know most of the words to the Pledge of Allegiance (even though I think it’s a really creepy nod to fascism). I sing the words to the Armed Forces Medley and Stars and Stripes Forever every time I hear them. But I think our country can be better. There’s lots of room for improvement. And we don’t get better by ignoring the inconvenient misdeeds of our past.  Our students need to study all of American history, not just the parts that make us look good. They need to draw conclusions, identify and acknowledge misdeeds, and resolve to prevent their leaders from walking down those same paths.

Maybe that’s what the critics are afraid of.

 

Why?

I was in the superintendent’s office last week refining a plan for technology and media in our schools. We had a complicated diagram with circles and arrows and boxes all over it. It started with the district’s strategic vision, and specifically the goals of promoting next generation skills, integrating state of the art technology, and offering quality program options that include STEM. It included the technology plan, which is focused on technology infrastructure, ubiquitous access to technology for students and teachers, and appropriate levels of support for both the operational and instructional needs of the district. It addressed student technology needs (both resources and instruction) at various levels, and the plans for meeting those needs. It tied in our teacher leaders, media specialists, and other professional staff who are responsible for various aspects of the plan.

4603106405_0d83269a23_zAfter working through the diagram for about half an hour, the superintendent took the paper. At the bottom of the diagram, in large block letters, he wrote this:

WHY?

We need technology to do more than test kids. Sure, testing is important. For all of the resources that we devote to public education, for the millions upon millions of dollars spent in schools all across the country, year after year, we should be able to prove that we’re not wasting everyone’s time and money. We should be able to articulate what the learning outcomes should be in each subject at each grade level, and we should be able to demonstrate our effectiveness at getting students to reach those outcomes. Technology plays an important role in the management, instruction, intervention, and assessment of that system.

But it has to go beyond that. Students need to know much more about the technology landscape than their parents do. They have to understand what information literacy looks like in an age of information abundance. It’s not about finding the information anymore. It’s about filtering and evaluating and selecting from multiple sources. It’s about evaluating credibility and giving credit to those whose work you’re building on. Not only are those complicated skills, they’re skills that our students need to be learning in elementary school.

As they learn to navigate in a connected world, our students must embrace the powerful resources of communication and collaboration that have permeated all aspects of their culture. Publication — the sharing of ideas and work with a global audience — is as easy now as consumption. Our students can share their ideas with the world just as easily as they find the ideas of others. They can work together on documents and projects, participate in conversations with full audio and video, and publish their work online in less time than it takes to draw a timeline on poster board.

America’s history is one of innovation. It was our rejection of the rules of war (along with some dumb luck and help from the French) that won our independence. In the 20th century, we innovated our way to victory through the use of air power in the first world war, and the use of nuclear weapons in the second war. The industrial revolution made the American dream a reality for millions of our families. Post-war advances in chemistry, medicine, and technology ensured our status as the last standing superpower for the remainder of the century. As other countries caught up in manufacturing and industry, we innovated by moving to service and technology sectors.

We are facing huge challenges in the decades to come. In many respects, we have been over-spending our resources to maintain our standard of living for quite a while now, and the short-sighted economic decisions of our parents are coming back to haunt us. At the same time, the aging boomers’ need for health care and the rising costs of that care are unprecedented. In the last years of her life, my grandmother paid more per month for her assisted living than she paid for her house. Climate change is very real, and the shortcuts we’ve taken in the name of progress are starting to have disastrous and irreversible impacts on the global environment. Job prospects for today’s youth are unclear, as many of the jobs of my parents’ generation have been eliminated by automation and cheaper labor forces overseas.

Our kids have a lot of work to do. They need to leave school prepared to meet these challenges. And the challenges are much more complicated than answering multiple choice questions that measure their ability to recall information. Education isn’t just about knowing anymore. It’s about applying the “know” to challenges in the “now.”

 

Photo credit: Veerle Pieters, photo by Marc Thiele on Flickr.