The Opportunity of Crisis

What an unsettling time.

In a couple weeks, our world has dramatically shifted. It’s like 9/11. It’s like JFK. It’s not, really. Those were sudden national tragedies when the world changed in an instant. This is slower. Our world changed over the course of a week, not in minutes. And, at least for now, it’s temporary.

2809961438_56d48f9969_wBut it’s like those other events in the sense that the world as we know it has come to a sudden arboreal stop. Life isn’t normal anymore. It’s unsettling. It’s troubling. It’s disconcerting. It’s exciting.

We don’t know what the effects of this are going to be over the long term. But we know what the next month is going to look like. And we have a pretty good idea that things aren’t going to be back to normal in the next few months. After that, we have to wait and see.

In the nineties, the Internet was a place that brought people together. Before the web and all the “information superhighway” hype, it was fundamentally a way for people to communicate, to find their tribes, and to be parts of communities that were geographically disparate. From my earliest days as a teacher, I thought it would revolutionize learning by bringing people together. In some ways, I’ve spent most of my career trying (mostly unsuccessfully) to help make that happen.

Three weeks ago, Nancy Messonnier, a director at the Centers for Disease Control, warned that school closings would be coming. She told the public to “Ask about plans for teleschool.” A few hours later, all of my online communities were converging on this topic. The email listservs and the Subreddits and the Twitter stream and the Facebook friends all landed on it at the same time. We’re not ready for this. What do we do now?

The transformation never happened. We built the infrastructure. We put all the tools in place. We built wireless networks and put devices in the hands of every student. We did tons of professional development, and focused on next generation pedagogy and things like formative assessments, differentiation, project based learning, portfolios, and authentic assessment. We adopted learning resources that are primarily digital resources and stopped relying so much on textbooks. But we weren’t really changing much. We were nibbling around the edges. For the most part, school was the same as it was when our teachers were students.

But this week, somehow, when faced with no alternatives, everyone stepped up. I keep thinking of that scene in Apollo 13 where they have to fix the CO2 problem.

“We got to find a way to make this fit into the hole for this using nothing but that.”
“Let’s get it organized.”
“Okay, let’s build a filter.”

Nobody signed up for this, but it’s the task in front of us. What do our students have at home? How can we use that to teach them as well as we can? Our teachers sorted through the pile of stuff on the table and they started putting pieces together. Our instructional coaches gave up sleeping and spent a lot of time filling in the gaps. Our curriculum director and our principals started triaging the problem and setting priorities. Nobody complained about a change in working conditions. Nobody refused to step up. We’re going to do whatever we need to do.

This isn’t a matter of life and death. The world isn’t going to end if our kids miss a month of school. As I’ve been saying, there aren’t any expectations. Anything we do is better than doing nothing. That’s a very liberating place to be. We can try things that might not work. We can roll the dice on long odds. We can try things that we weren’t willing to try a month ago. We have a get out of jail free card. There’s nothing to lose.

I’m excited about this. I’m hoping that we’re going to learn some things about us, and about our students, and about how learning can be. I’m hoping that we’re going to pick up some practices or ideas or some out-of-the-box methods that we never tried before because we never had to. In the end, eventually, we’re going to go back to school. But hopefully, we’re going to take some of these lessons back into the classrooms with us. And our kids will be better for it.

Photo credit: Max Klingensmith, Flickr.

Beliefs

When I was 25, I believed that the anonymity of online discussions would allow the exchange of ideas without prejudice, and raise the level of human discourse. I’d been communicating online for five or six years. The web was brand new. Most of the forums were text based. There was lots of Usenet and mailing lists. And it didn’t matter who you were or where you were from. We didn’t judge people based on skin color or physical attributes or handicaps. We couldn’t see those things. Your ideas stood on their own merits.

snakeoilI remember teaching middle school kids about this wonderful world where stereotypes and pre-judgement were relics from a more primitive time. I even did some original research around anonymity in online discussion forums. The hypothe

sis was that students were more likely to engage in deeper conversations online if their real identities were unknown to the other participants (but known to the moderator). The result was that there was no significant difference.

And the civil discourse didn’t really happen either. There were flame wars before there were trolls. Sometimes it’s fun to push someone’s buttons. It’s fun to wind up the toy and let it go. As it turns out, the lack of accountability that goes along with anonymity can bring out the worst in people. And it doesn’t take many of those people to destroy reasoned, civil discourse.


 

When I was 35, I believed that the democratization of the means of dissemination would give voice to the voiceless, and allow more perspectives to be heard. Those are big words. Let me put it more simply: everyone is a publisher. Even the relatively simple process of setting up a web site and having access to a global audience had become MUCH easier with the advent of weblogs and wikis. It really did become easy for anyone to publish anything and reach an enormous audience.

We were no longer shackled by the editors and publishers and news outlets that controlled the means of publication. I can say whatever I want (and I did). I set up news feeds and RSS links and all kinds of stuff to tune in to these alternative sources of information. Chris Anderson came up with his Long Tail idea. There’s room for everyone’s ideas on the Internet. You don’t have to figure out whether it’s worth the investment to publish something, because publishing is basically free.

But the movement away from a few broadcasters has led to misinformation, fake news, and the breakdown of such fundamental concepts as “truth” and “fact”. For every opinion, there is an equal and opposite opinion, and in the interest of fairness and equal time, we give voice to the crazy. Now, we have people who are intentionally destroying their own credibility, because they can’t be held accountable for their words if it can easily be proven that they’re lying most of the time. So we use words like “alternative fact” and “believe” a lot more than we used to, and we’ve lost touch with ideas like trustworthy and authoritative.


 

When I was 45, I believed that technology could save public education. Technology would allow differentiation and authentic assessment in ways that previous generations could only dream of. Every student would have an individualized plan, and the learning activities would be tailored by a caring, intelligent, and perspicacious teacher. Students would have some flexibility to explore topics and ideas that interest them, and they would complete projects, conduct original research, and produce deliverables that demonstrated their learning in novel ways. Along the way, they would learn to collaborate, express their creativity, and communicate effectively in a variety of media. They would apply innovative thinking strategies to take ideas and concepts from different disciplines and combine them in new ways to solve challenging real-world problems. And all of this would happen in public schools using best practices, innovative teaching strategies, and cutting edge resources that would be unmatched by the private/online/charter/alternative schools.

So we worked through all of the challenges. We put devices into all students’ hands. We built the infrastructure to make the technology work reliably and efficiently. We spent years on professional development. We talked a lot about assessment and homework and learning activities. We focused on the importance of portfolios and depth of knowledge and learning standards. And then we bought document cameras so teachers could help students complete worksheets as a class.


 

I wonder what I’ll believe when I’m 55.

 

Photo credit: Wikimedia commons.

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.