Monday, January 14, 2008

Eradicating Meaningless Euphemisms by Bombarding them with New Ones

David Warlick's most recent blog and the congratulatory support of his readers confuses me.

Let me begin by sharing a portion of his article with which I agree:

Our efforts should not be to integrate technology into the classroom, but to define and facilitate a new platform on which the classroom operates. When the platform is confined by classroom walls, and learning experiences spring from static textbooks and labored-over white boards, and the learning is highly prescribed, then pedagogy is required.

However, I am left to ask, "What do learners DO in the world of pretty diagrams, false dichotomies and networked learning platforms promised in Warlick's blog?"

However, if the platform is a node on the global network; with text, audio, and video links to other uncountable nodes on the network; and the connections are real time and clickable, and tools are available to work and employ the content that flows through those connections; then the learning happens because learners have experienced personal connections — and they want to maintain those connections by feeding back their own value. (Warlick 1/13/08)

I don't teach from textbooks or white boards and never did. My teaching has been far from prescriptive, whether face-to-face or online. This was all possible without the technology platform Warlick fashions for educators of the future. Understanding how meaningful, personal, non-coercive, creative, constructive, collaborative learning environments have been created, and in some cases sustained, around the world should be a pre-requisite for anyone professing a desire to reinvent education.

I love talking, chatting, Skyping, Twittering, blogging, Mogging (yup, it exists) and writing as much as the next guy, but a very small percentage of knowledge is constructed by talking. Much is not. I remain unconvinced that the most vocal proponents of Web 2.0 offer a vision of technology use outside of the language arts or perhaps social studies curriculum. With all due respect, talking about math or science is not the same as being a scientist or mathematician. Papert originally offered a vision of how computers make that possibility a reality.

Learning is an active process with the learner at its center. It is not dependent on instruction, online or face-to-face. I got excited about computing thirty years ago because it allowed me to make things that did not exist before or were beyond my reach. It amplified my creative abilities. Playing jazz and computer programming afforded me a community of practice of like-minded people, of various levels of expertise and shared objectives.

I have since come to understand how knowledge is the result of active purposeful construction and that computers often unprecedented opportunities to explore new domains and engage in a much wider range of projects than have ever been possible before. As Papert says, "If you can make things with computers, then you can make a lot more interesting things." The process of computer programming was as creatively rewarding and intellectually satisfying as composing music or engaging in a well-reasoned argument. What are examples of the "artifacts of learning" that Mr. Warlick "breeds?"

I fear with all my being that the remarkable potential of computing and the promise for innovation and school reform it once embraced will be lost if all we focus on is the "well-reasoned debate" at best, and looking stuff up, PowerPoint or web quests at worst.

I do not mean to diminish for an instant the power of the Internet. I have personally been online since 1983 and teaching online for more than a dozen years. I used an acoustic coupler to connect from my bedroom to a mainframe in the late 1970s and remember when my Australian host invited her neighbors over to watch me check my email in 1990. I led collaborative online education projects in the late 1980s. As I write this paragraph, even I ask myself, "SO WHAT?"

The network begins at home. Isn't there MUCH more we can do to make the existing learning environments more social, collaborative and meaningful whether electricity is involved or not? Why do we constantly jump from melodramatic tales of school to some utopian world of online alchemy?

It may be ill-advised to project onto children or the educational system an adult's excitement about how social networks have reduced their sense of isolation, answered a tech-support question or even helped shape their personal identity.

I sense that we have gone beyond the tipping point of what Seymour Papert calls "verbal inflation." We are terribly excited about so very little.

David's triad of "electronic portfolios," "course management systems" and "social networking" offers not a single clue for a teacher yearning to make school a more hospitable place for learning nor provides a child one ounce of leverage against the system many of you proclaim a desire to reform. In fact, electronic portfolios and course management systems are clear tools of the existing system.

I do happen to agree with David Warlick's concern about the cacophony of meaningless euphemisms being bandied about, but cannot help but notice the number of additional ones introduced in the comments to his blog.

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  • I hear you Gary!

    The radical changes that so many people are talking about are not so radical.

    See 1940s in the U.S.

    I still say "We should get rid of chalk!"

    By Anonymous Rodd Lucier, At January 14, 2008 5:19 AM  

  • Yeah, I was amazed by how little Warlick's post seemed to actually say. You use the same quote twice above. Presumably the second one should be a different one?

    By Anonymous Tom Hoffman, At January 14, 2008 6:46 AM  

  • Gary, when you write,

    "David's triad of "electronic portfolios," "course management systems" and "social networking" offers not a single clue for a teacher yearning to make school a more hospitable place for learning nor provides a child one ounce of leverage against the system many of you proclaim a desire to reform. In fact, electronic portfolios and course management systems are clear tools of the existing system",

    --I'm with you on the schooliness of a CMS or an electronic portfolio, but not so sold that networked learning (and doing, ideally) that hooks students up with more teachers than the guy in front of the classroom falls into the same schooly category.

    I'm all ears here. I'd like it if you could either link to somewhere on your blog or elsewhere the "single clue for a teacher yearning to make school a more hospitable place for learning nor provides a child one ounce of leverage against the system many of you proclaim a desire to reform" that you fault David for not offering.

    I know that's not the point of your post. That's why I'm asking you to lead to the vision you propose does offer those clues, if you can do that.

    Because I'm one of those teachers.

    Enjoy your refusal to rah-rah, as usual :)

    By Anonymous CB, At January 14, 2008 12:13 PM  

  • Hi,

    It's hard to answer your question in one email or a blog. I'm trying to write a book, but keep getting distracted. The books I've recommended in the past are good places to start.

    I also have a large collection of articles that may be of some interest at

    By Anonymous Gary, At January 14, 2008 1:06 PM  

  • I'm hear you, too, and long ago stopped reading such pundits. Another point to consider, even if you believe the web/learning 2.0 is somehow original or radical, is the closed nature of the personal network. Try to interact with the K12 edu-bloggo-pundit world and you'll find a very closed system indeed. How does living in a world where everybody thinks and believes just the same as you help you learn?

    By Anonymous todd, At January 14, 2008 1:32 PM  

  • I'll throw in my two cents (again), so many time the Web 2.0 pundits fail to mention content. I'll use technology in my classroom if it makes a rich, real, and relevant learning experience richer, or more real or more relevant.

    By Anonymous nbosch, At January 14, 2008 4:45 PM  

  • Thanks for that, Gary.

    Actually, on re-reading your article you offer a good bit of "clues". I was just sleepy and rushed the first time through (note to self: sleep before commenting).

    Some fun "pundit"-bashing going on in the comments ;) Makes me nervous, since I'm a teacher who uses any sledgehammer I can find, web 2.0 or otherwise, to try to break my students into worlds of relevance, creativity, action.

    I'm not a fan of "informational product" fetishism, though, and find the focus on that frustrating.

    Todd, while I agree there's more back-slapping good-old-boy (and girl) group hugging in the discourse than there is reasoning and argument, I think it's getting better. I've had a good number of snarky arguments in the last month - normally ones I instigate.

    By Anonymous CB, At January 14, 2008 10:29 PM  

  • I continue to enjoy your writing , if only because I have to read it 3 times before I really get what you're saying and even then....

    I can't help thinking that if you and Warlick were in a room aka the Richardson/Stager showdown that never delivered the type of debate I anticipated, you'd largely be saying the same thing. Maybe I need a chart outlining the key differences because in some senses, it seems like semantics and emphasis rather than flat out differences.

    While you may have a solid understanding of what constitutes an effective, relevant learning environment, we know that the accountability advocates and test hungry policy makers have helped to blur this and have made it difficult for teachers to cut through the crap and design learning that is relevant, authentic and personal. Yes, this type of learning has existed forever under the guise of our best teachers but in today's knowledge rich, connected world it's now in our face.

    The fact anyone with a $600 computer can potentially produce a feature length film, distribute it and bypass all the previous barriers makes us recognize learning is different and schools are trying to figure out how to respond. The social networking and collaboration to me is about personalizing learning. Even in your Papert driven thinking about using computers to create and design, there still comes a point where you need people. Traditionally you were limited to the people in the room. How restrictive is that when you're trying to create the next jazz masterpiece and no one in the room has even heard of Miles Davis? That's why the network piece is so important to me and I suppose to David too. I don't think it's one or the other and I don't think you have to fear this overtaking meaningful creation.

    I think you and Warlick are closer than you think in your beliefs. Maybe there's something wrong with me that I agree with both you.

    By Anonymous dean shareski, At January 15, 2008 8:52 PM  

  • Thought-provoking as always Gary. My initial reaction to David's article was to splutter a hearty "horse pucky".

    After further reflection, my reaction was still the same:

    By Anonymous Kim, At January 17, 2008 3:49 AM  

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