Friday, July 30, 2010

The Danger of PLNs: More Thoughts

In a must-read article (thanks Ben), William Deriewicz addresses students at West Point on the topic of solitude and leadership. His premise is that solitude is necessary for true leadership. A true leader, he argues, is not merely those "who only know how to keep the routine going. Who can answer questions, but don’t know how to ask them. Who can fulfill goals, but don’t know how to set them. Who think about how to get things done, but not whether they’re worth doing in the first place." A true leader (and surely every teacher is a leader - a leader of children) is a thinker. She must not only follow orders but create new pathways; she must not merely do what's always been done, but have the courage and the confidence to stand up for what she believes in, even if it means standing against a traditional practice or what's "popular."

To think, Deriewicz argues further, we need solitude. We need to concentrate on something long enough to develop an idea about it, which isn't possible "in bursts of 20 seconds at a time, constantly interrupted by Facebook messages or Twitter tweets, or fiddling with your iPod, or watching something on YouTube." Or scanning your RSS reader. What's more, he points out yet another problem with our continuous stream of information (blogs, news, even the New York Times): "When you expose yourself to those things, especially in the constant way that people do are continuously bombarding yourself with a stream of other people’s thoughts. You are marinating yourself in the conventional wisdom. In other people’s reality: for others, not for yourself. You are creating a cacophony in which it is impossible to hear your own voice, whether it’s yourself you’re thinking about or anything else."

How much more dangerous, now that we can create our own personal "learning" networks and marinate ourselves in a soup of sameness. In my last post, I considered the question posed by blogger Scott McLeod: Should we require teachers to have RSS readers? I'm almost convinced we should ban them. (But not quite. I love my RSS reader.)

Friday, July 23, 2010

The Danger of PLNs (and other like-minded groups)

The "next best thing" is PLNs - personal learning networks: a network of people with whom you exchange information - in the case of teachers, about professional development, lesson plans, resources, solutions, news. In the 21st century, your network can include the best minds in the world through twitter, blogs, wikis, nings, webinars and more (or at least the best minds in the world who are engaged in the online world). We are a network of learners learning together. Exciting!

And dangerous. It hit me hard when one of the educators in my network, Scott McLeod (note that in the "real" world I would never get a chance to hear the almost daily musings of this professor and guru of educational technology), posted this question on his blog: Should we require school employees to have RSS readers? An RSS reader, just in case you are one of the many people who haven't "kept up" with technology, is a tool that feeds you updates from your favourite blogs, websites, and news headlines.

It's quite possible that the question was merely meant to provoke. My immediate reaction was against the word "require." Why not require exercise? Meditation? Reading poetry? My further reaction surprised me: I realized I'm at least as concerned with the belief that daily reading of RSS feeds - this stream of information from a network we create - is necessarily a good thing.

The first problem is that we surround ourselves with people who think like we do. Scott McLeod has thousands of readers (on Twitter he has 6400 followers), but while all of them (thankfully) balked at the word "required," none of them (except me) suggested that the idea of RSS for teachers was not a good thing. Can you imagine asking such a question in a staff room? Even with a staff of five teachers?

Despite the size of our PLNs - and perhaps that is what makes them most dangerous, since their very size inflate our certainty - their lack of diversity reinforces our biases and encourages us in our ideas, however nonsensical, rather than holding them up to the light of diverse facts, ideas, and opinions. In On Liberty, John Stuart Mill, writing in 1859, argues vehemently that while there is no such thing as absolute certainty, the very best thing we can do, in order to act on our beliefs, is to hold them up to those who contradict and disprove them. Without the dissenters, we all lose: "If the opinion is right, they are deprived of the opportunity of exchange error for truth: if wrong, they lose, what is almost as great a benefit, the clearer perception and livelier impression of the truth, produced by its collision with error."

We have swallowed the idea that the Internet has allowed us to finally "have our say," to move opinion out of the hands of the elite and into the hands of the "people." We believe that the Internet is a tool, at last, not only of democracy - but also of diversity. I'm wondering. What if someone in my PLN doesn't agree with me? I get to do something I may have secretly wished to do to the curmudgeonly naysayer on my staff - I delete them.

Sunday, July 11, 2010

The Mathematization of Reading Comprehension (and Love)

Online dating is touted as "the answer" to anonymous city lives: one simply punches in requisite information (height, weight, age, eye colour, religion, work, hobbies) and one's preferences in a partner - and voila - a list of matches is found for you. In a survey of participants in the online dating world, however, Dan Ariely and his team discovered that the odds of finding the "right one" through an online service are not as good as one might expect. Why? Ariely writes, "In the same way that the chemical composition of broccoli or pecan pie is not going to help us better understand what the real thing tastes like, breaking people up into their individual attributes is not very helpful in figuring out what it might be like to spend time or live with them." (The Upside of Irrationality)

We keep trying, of course, to find formulas, to remove uncertainty, to speed up the processes of these "messy" things in our lives.

We certainly keep trying in education. We have a test of reading comprehension. Because we know that kids who can take notes to organize their thoughts, make connections, infer, determine importance, synthesize and so on can comprehend better, this test tests their tools. The reasoning: then we'll know what to teach them. If they struggle to make connections to the text we'll teach "connections." A perfect formula!

It probably increases the odds of understanding and enhancing reading comprehension as often as online dating hits the perfect match. Comprehension (like love) is complex and so much more than the sum of its parts. And it's elusively individual. Ultimately we've only learned how well they can write this particular sort of test and we get some glimpse into their reading comprehension. That's not a bad thing. It's only a problem if we put more weight on it than it deserves - if we believe our story that it's a perfect formula - if we don't have a rich array of data from many sources to make our teaching decisions in our schools, our classrooms and for individual students.

Of course, what we're looking for, rather than this messy muchness, is some perfect diagnosis - a CT scan for learning that reveals the map of a student's weaknesses so we can "fix" them with a series of well-crafted lessons determined by a rigorous and precise formula. But, alas, learning doesn't work that way. Reading comprehension is no more matter of the right tools than love is a function of eye colour preference and similar hobbies. We need, at the very least, in the first place to engage with the text. Or we need, instead, deep purpose. And we need to be able to bring our attention to bear on the text (even if we're tired, bored, angry, confused). And we need the flexibility to read differently with different texts. And so on. Our inability to comprehend (or show our comprehension) of any one text on a particular day could be caused by any of these factors (and others) or a complex combination of them.

I've been thinking lately, that if we spent less time seeking the formula for reading comprehension and more time providing a sea of opportunities, rich experiences, flexible tools, sharing what works not telling what's right, then we might have a better chance of providing each child with what seems in the 21st century, a basic right - the ability to read well.

Friday, July 9, 2010

Shredding Motivation

Here's the experiment: each participant receives a sheet of paper with a random sequence of letters and is asked to find instances where the letter S is followed by another letter S. Each sheet contained ten instances of consecutive Ss and they have to find all ten instances. They get paid $0.55 for the first completed page, $0.50 for the second and so on - thus for the twelfth page on they would get nothing.

The experimenters, Dan Ariely and his team (read more about this in his book The Upside of Irrationality) set the following conditions. In the first, participants write their name at the top of each sheet. Once finished, they handed it to the experimenter who looks it over from top to bottom, nods in a positive way, and places it upside down on a pile. In the second condition, participants are not asked to write their names at the top of the sheet and when they hand it in, the experimenter just places it on the top of the pile without reviewing it or acknowledging the participant. In the third condition, when the participants hand in their sheets, the experimenter simply shreds it. In other words, the difference in this rather meaningless task is that in the first condition, the participant is acknowledged and her work is not anonymous or obviously meaningless (shredded).

Guess which group completed more sheets?

The participants in the acknowledged condition completed an average of 9.03 sheets, those in the shredded condition 6.34 and those in the ignored condition 6.77. The perhaps not so surprising surprise is that simply ignoring the participants' work had almost as much effect as the more dramatic shredding.

Consider the classroom. Consider how many assignments children do. Some children are continuously acknowledged: their work is read aloud, the teacher says kind things. Some children are rather regularly ignored: their work is mediocre at best and beyond "correcting" them (surely a form of "shredding"), there is little to celebrate. And some children have their work routinely "shredded." Perhaps it's not surprising that over time the motivation of a number of children (in our district 30%) steadily decreases, so that by grade 8 they are lounging in the back row, disengaged, scribbling out the minimum and on the road to dropping out.

What could we do differently so that each child - and the work they do - is acknowledged in a meaningful way?