The Fear of Losing Control

11/18/2005 11:22:00 pm

As a follow-up to the discussion we've been having in the comments to my previous post, The Fear of Transparency, Miguel posted a podcast discussion between two other technology directors, Virgil Kirk and Myrna Martinez.

Virgil says that blogs can only be used informally, not for instruction, because universal access is an issue. If 12 kids in a school don't have access we can't use the tool.

I would reply that it is the responsibility of the public school system to provide internet access and web 2.0 tools to all children regardless of their socioeconomic background. There's been a lot of talk about Thomas Friedman's book, "The World is Flat." The world is not flat. The world is two plateaus separated by a steep, and in some places unscalable, cliff. It is the responsibility of the public school system to carve stairs into the cliff and make it scalable.

Virgil goes on to say:

"We need to look at this as an instructional tool to get them through the instructional process, that's when blogs become very controlled, rigid and regimented because that's what we do in instruction. Instruction is very controlled, regimented and organized. If that's where your blog fits in it's a wonderful tool. If it's not it does not belong in the school environment. It belongs outside the school environment and there's a way for those kids to use that and that's their power, that's their way of releasing, so that when they're in the school they are concentrating on what it is our goal is to teach them; whether it be reading, math or using technology. The same skills I teach them at how to use a word processor, or how to create a powerpoint, how to create an access database, how to create a web page, are the same skills they are going to transfer when they are at home in their home environment; doing those things at home that we have no control over nor should we take control over."

While I agree with Virgil that good instruction is organized, I find the notion of teaching as a controlled and regimented activity distasteful. There is an element of control in the way I run my class; there is a dynamic, participatory element as well. Students are empowered to make decisions about when and how we do certain activities within the constraints of our common goals (we've got a course to complete) and the time frame (finish before the exam) we have to work with. Real learning is loud and messy and moves forward in fits and starts. Not everyone moves forward at the same pace and some move ahead extremely swiftly; others more slowly. Finding the right balance to meet the diversity of talents and abilities in any classroom is an art. It's a push-me pull-you affair with teacher and students constantly negotiating where they are in the learning process. (see Clarence's recent post) An environment that is controlled, rigid and regimented sounds more like a total institution rather than a place of learning.

A place of learning is characterized by an air of open, sometimes passionate, inquiry. A place where people are safe and free to express their ideas in an effort to grow, learn and acquire the knowledge and skills necessary to be a contributing member of the community. I think blogging fits well with such a learning environment. For example look at my classroom blogs (Pre-Cal 20S, Pre-Cal 30S, AP Calculus AB) where the student's voices are dominant. I don't think they would fit the paradigm Virgil describes and I challenge anyone to say that they are not demonstrating how much they are learning each and every day.

Myrna seems to appreciate that. She suggests that a modern research paper will have digital images, video and audio elements. A blog may be just the right tool at just the right time to bring all these things together. Virgil responds to Myrna's suggestion of using a blog to present a research paper by saying that is not what a blog is for. He says: "Blogs are a tool used for people to share ideas." I quite agree. I'm not certain if Virgil realized what he had said. ;-)

The list of technological competencies that Virgil lists in his argument about which technologies are appropriately taught in the schools and which are not (blogs and blogging) strikes me as a little passé. Almost all of those skills are taken for granted in the modern business world. In order to compete on a global scale young people need the critical thinking and evaluation skills that Alan November talks about. (See my post A Lot to Chew On.) Blogs, wikis, aggregators and the growing suite of social and collaborative tools available on the internet requires educators to redefine what technological literacy means in today's economy. Denying students access to these tools is to deny them access to future opportunities. More than that, it means we will have failed in the task of preparing our students for the world of work. The goal is not to get students "through the instructional process;" the goal is to prepare them for the world they are going to live in. We wont do that by locking them, and ourselves, in silos that are disconnected from the tools and skills they will need after graduation. The goal is not to graduate students. The goal is to create opportunities for success after graduation.

Moreover, if the skills related to the older technology Virgil mentions are transferable how can it be the case (implied in his argument) that the skills related to appropriate use of web 2.0 technologies are not? The fact that the world for which we are preparing students has changed requires the we as educators also change -- we've got to change what and how we teach, and students have to change what and how they learn. Anything else is to be left behind by other societies that have already recognized this fact (i.e. India, China, Japan and Singapore).

The one sentiment that struck me most forcefully in the discussion was an overwhelming fear of losing control. Control of students; control of content; control of the process of learning. The thing is, learning has nothing to do with that kind of centralized control. It has everything to do with putting control in the hands of the learner; which is the whole point of web 2.0 technologies.

Miguel, you said that this podcast was in response to what I and others had said about blocking access to content on the internet. I don't see how anything that came out in the podcast helped to support your position. As a matter of fact, all three speakers seem to have the same attitude on that issue: "Blocking if necessary, but not necessarily blocking." The issue of whether or not district administrators trust their teaching staff was also not addressed. I'm still composing my thoughts on that issue. ;-)

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  1. You're right once again Darren to point out that the real motivators here have nothing to do with educating students or teachers. It's about "keeping kids safe" or "avoiding liability" or not giving up control over our content. What Miguel and others don't understand, I think, is that we no longer control the content, and to attempt to continue to do so is fruitless and, I would argue, anti-education. This will be a pitched battle in many schools, I'm sure, and I'm starting to believe that the change will take a generation to effect. But it will happen. You and Clarence and Bud and others are doing the heavy lifting on this right now, and I don't know how much of your effort will change the system. But the good news is you are educating your kids, and they will be much better for it. On! On!

  2. Darren, my response to your recent post (and Will's misapprehension of my understanding) appears in my blog

    Great post again! I didn't know math teachers were so erudite! (grin)

  3. I don't think this is accurate: "we've got to change what and how we teach, and students have to change what and how they learn. Anything else is to be left behind by other societies that have already recognized this fact (i.e. India, China, Japan and Singapore)"

    India, China and Singapore aren't going to beat us because of their embrace of openness and Web 2.0 in their schools, in part because they haven't done those things for variously political and economic reasons. Japan's educational system is good, but they're no threat economically (until they regain their imperial streak).

  4. You're right Tom -- that isn't accurate. Japan and Sinagpore are world leaders in mathematics education, India and China are two countries Thomas Friedman focuses on in "The World is Flat." I guess I got excited and confused the issues. I'm glad you dropped by and pointed it out. ;-)