Help The Children Lead, Instead of Telling Them Where to Go

From Alexandra Petri, one of the smartest, and often funniest, writers at the Washington Post, some (satirical) thoughts about the students now speaking up against the American love affair with guns.

Now, if you don’t want to hear from any more high schoolers traumatized by gun violence, then you either decide to try to create a world where high schoolers are not traumatized by gun violence, or decide to create a world where you do not have to listen to the high schoolers. It looks like we’re picking the latter!

We are not monsters. This burning shame that keeps us awake is their fault. If they were not there pointing the finger at us — We are being personally victimized! We are the real victims here! They have the audacity to point fingers at people for doing nothing! We haven’t done anything!

You can almost hear that coming out of the mouth of some “regressive”1 commentator on one of the talking heads channels in response to the raw and honest reaction coming from the children.

What these analysts and spokespeople seem to ignore is that the First Amendment doesn’t specify a minimum age and that the right to petition the government belongs to everyone, not just their friends with big bank accounts.

Anyway, I hope that the students from Parkland, now loudly speaking against our absurdly loose gun laws, continue to ignore those calls to shut up and sit down. Even more, I really hope that they, joined by protesting young people from all over the country, have started a movement that can affect major changes.

The adults of my generation have created many, many problems with our current government, and American society in general. Problems that are already severely impacting the lives of these kids beyond the almost-daily gun violence. From climate change to economic disparity and poverty to an increasingly unstable world, they need to be more than just aware. Students must be leaders in the work to the solutions.

But those solutions will not come easily. I agree with a post from a wise friend who writes that such a process will be “incredibly long” and will include many setbacks.

Sustaining the passion for the work is really hard, and you’ll need trusted friends and allies who will listen to you vent and strategize with you and privately call you on your mistakes and tell you when you need to go get some sleep. You will need those people, and I am sure you will be those people for each other as well.

Some of those “trusted friends and allies” must be their teachers.

However, instead of telling them to stay in the classroom, we must listen to our students, to both their concerns and ideas. We, as in all adults who support children, must help them learn how to use their authentic voices and to effectively direct the power of responsible civic engagement.

Guide them into adulthood, instead of always telling them what we think they need to know, what to say, and how to act.

Image is of an editorial cartoon by the wonderful Steve Benson, whose liberal-leaning work always seemed a little out of place at the conservative (but generally responsible) Arizona Republic newspaper (known online as AZCentral).

1. Since “progressive” is often used as an alternate for liberal on the political spectrum, I think we should use a far more accurate synonym for conservative, “regressive”.

Tech Addiction Does Not Have a Tech Solution

The New York Times says the tech backlash is here.

Once uncritically hailed for their innovation and economic success, Silicon Valley companies are under fire from all sides, facing calls to take more responsibility for their role in everything from election meddling and hate speech to physical health and internet addiction.

The backlash against big tech has been growing for months. Facebook and Twitter are under scrutiny for their roles in enabling Russian meddling in the 2016 presidential election and for facilitating abusive behavior. Google was hit with a record antitrust fine in Europe for improperly exploiting its market power.

Evidently, the breaking point came this week when two of Apple’s large, institutional investors began pressuring the company to study and find solutions to the addictive nature of their technology, especially among children. Their statement expresses a belief that “long-term health of its youngest customers and the health of society, our economy and the company itself are inextricably linked”. 

Ok, I understand the addictive properties of gadgets like smartphones and social media sites like Facebook and SnapChat. But is this another case of blaming technology for human problems? Of demanding technological solutions instead of the difficult job of working collectively to change the culture?

I strongly disagree with media that post clickbait headlines like “Your smartphone is making you stupid, antisocial and unhealthy.” and follow them with unsupported statements like this:

They have impaired our ability to remember. They make it more difficult to daydream and think creatively. They make us more vulnerable to anxiety. They make parents ignore their children. And they are addictive, if not in the contested clinical sense then for all intents and purposes.

No. They – those evil smartphones – just sit there doing nothing until someone picks it up. They do not impede daydreaming and creativity and, in my opinion, can actually improve the ability to recall information. On their own smartphones don’t make people more anxious. And they certainly do not “make” parents ignore their children.

Yes, companies like Apple1 should provide tools to help mitigate the “addictive nature” of their products. And Facebook should use some of that highly touted “artificial intelligence” to do a better job of screening out anti-social messaging. All of them certainly need to do a better job of educating parents and teachers on how children interact with their products.

But at this point in history, it’s not possible to compel people to use those tools and that knowledge. I wonder if it’s even possible to educate people how to be more socially responsible on social media when some of the worst examples come from people our political, business, and entertainment “leaders”.

So, the tech “backlash” is here and this debate will continue. With too much of the blame likely directed at the technology and the companies that create it. And not nearly enough of the responsibility accepted by those of us who use it.

1 And Google, which provides the operating system for far more smartphones than Apple and is often ignored in these debates. Of course, much of Android is copied from iOS so there’s that. :-)

Resistance is Not Futile. But It’s Also Not Enough.

Many people know the First Amendment guarantees freedom of speech. Some can even recall something about religion and a free press being in there.

But there are two other parts of at the end of the run-on sentence opening the Bill of Rights that are often overlooked1: “the right of the people peaceably to assemble, and to petition the Government for a redress of grievances”.

Projection 188

It’s a good thing James Madison thought to include them. Assembling and petitioning have gotten a vigorous workout this year.

We certainly need to exercise our rights to push back against the racist, xenophobic, mysoginistic, Islamaphobic, and anti-immigrant policies being forced on us by both the Executive branch as well as the majority party in Congress.

But that need to resist is always there. Anytime governments or organizations, at any level, try to make changes we feel are not in the best interests of society, we should speak up.

We must resist the attempts to privatize our public school system, to degrade health services for women, to remove basic protections for the environment, and to completely unravel the already fragile support system for those on the low end of the economic system.

We need to push back against “leaders” who claim to know it all but don’t want the public to know anything about what they’re doing. Ones who say they have all the answers but won’t reveal even the questions.

However, resistance is not enough.

Pushing back too often results in maintaining the status quo. The same old ideas and leaders who got us to this point in the first place.

Resistance alone does not move society forward.

For that we need leaders who will clearly articulate and advocate for positive policies and laws. The people currently forcing regressive policies on the country need to be replaced with those who are not afraid of change and the future. It’s not enough for candidates to simply be “not them”, or run on trying to make us afraid of what “they” might do.

Unfortunately, that’s very much what is happening in the current off-off-year election for governor and other state-wide offices here in Virginia. The messages from Democratic candidates I’ve seen2, is very much of the “help us resist” variety rather than articulating a vision for the future of the state. And both sides are actively engaged in scaring people rather than giving them something positive to support.

I have no idea what will happen in this election. Despite all the noise, I suspect there are still too many indifferent people who are not paying attention and will not vote, leaving the choice to a minority of activists more concerned with gaining power than with building a better society.

I can only hope I’m wrong.

1. According to polls, only 12% of Americans know about their right to assemble. On the other hand, many also misread the part about Congress not making any laws abridging the right of speech and assume everyone else has a Constitutional obligation to put up with their rants.

2. I admit I haven’t seen all that many political messages since I actively avoid advertising of all kind. But the negative campaign has been very hard to miss.

The image is from an article in the Washington Post about an activist who pulled off an interesting protest at the Old Post Office building in DC, currently occupied by the Trump Organization.

What Doesn’t Work In Education Reporting

School House1

Rather than asking what works in education, NPR asked “education researcher John Hattie” about ideas that don’t work. His answers are not based on his own work but on a review of “more than 1,000 ‘meta-analyses’”, whatever that is.

Anyway, I wish the writer had started by asking Mr. Hattie what he means by “works”. Of course, I know the answer. Works means improving scores on standardized tests, even though his number two non-working solution is standardized testing.

High-performing schools, and countries, don’t necessarily give more standardized tests than low performers. They often give fewer.

The alternative: testing that emphasizes giving teachers immediate, actionable feedback to improve teaching.

Having said that, his final item, in which he says the US spends too much money on public education, is based on the fact that other countries spend much less while their students score higher than American kids on an international standardized test (the PISA).

He also says that smaller class sizes don’t work because countries like Japan and Korea have relatively large classes and are “high performing”, again on those standardized tests.

It’s too bad NPR just transcribed the executive summary of Hattie’s paper, instead doing some research of their own and asking some informed questions.

The worst part about stories like this is the failure to recognize that there are major differences between American society and our approach to education with those of other countries. Start with the fact that, instead of national education goals, we have 51 educational policies, plus around 31,000 local school boards.

Then review the level of public support for public education in the US compared to Finland, Japan, and the rest. How many of their government leaders are working hard to demonize teachers and privatize schools?

Finally, look at the societal support systems for children in each country, especially rankings of child poverty rates (anywhere from 20% to 33% of all children, depending on the definition of “poverty”). I’ll bet “making America great again” has nothing to do with improving those dismal statistics.

And anyone who says poverty has nothing to do with learning, has never tried to teach math to a class of hungry middle school students.

Can Education Keep Up With Tech World?

In an opinion piece for CNN, a “security technologist” asks “Can laws keep up with tech world?’. If you accept Betteridge’s law of headlines, the answer of course is no. But the relationship between the legal and technical is certainly far more complex than a binary response anyway.

Traditionally, new technologies were adopted slowly over decades. There was time for people to figure them out, and for their social repercussions to percolate through society. Legislatures and courts had time to figure out rules for these technologies and how they should integrate into the existing legal structures.

That’s just not true anymore. A new technology can go from zero to a hundred million users in a year or less. That’s just too fast for the political or legal process. By the time they’re asked to make rules, these technologies are well-entrenched in society.

Much of what he’s saying, including the original question, could very well apply to technology in education. In their time movies, radio, television, video tape, even computers were new technologies that had some impact on the classroom. But these technologies worked their way into society over years and decades, giving schools plenty of time to figure out how each innovation fit into their instructional model.

As with the legal structures, that’s just not true anymore in education.

In less than a decade, we find large numbers of students (if not a majority of them) coming to school with powerful communications devices in their pockets, devices can connect them to most of the world’s knowledge, both the good and bad. Those new technologies that rapidly go from “zero to a hundred million users” are often through the classroom door before teachers have even heard of them.

As much as school administrators would like, the solution is not to slow down the entry of technology into the learning process so we can carefully design new research, craft new policies, and edit curriculum. Educators do not have that kind of control anymore. It’s also far too late to try banning the tech from the learning process.

Even if we did have the time, there’s really no way force these new technologies to fit into our traditional instructional model, not even with special “walled garden”, “EDU” versions. That teacher-controlled delivery of information, paired with curriculum-approved context doesn’t work anymore, no matter how hard we work to graft technology into it. Our traditional system is not one that will prepare students for a world “moving too fast for the political and legal process”.

So, regardless of Betteridge’s law, the answer to the title question of this post is certainly no. Which means we need reconsider what part schools play in that current tech world, and how we can help students learn to successfully adapt in the world of whatever comes next.