Observing the Future

Betteridge’s law of headlines states that “Any headline that ends in a question mark can be answered by the word no.”.

Take for example, a recent article on the Ars Technica website: “Is your smartphone making you dumb?”.

And despite the provocative question, the authors of the study being referenced don’t actually arrive at that conclusion.

“the results are purely correlational,” emphasize Golonka and Wilson. There’s no way to tell whether an over-reliance on smartphones decreases analytical thinking or whether lower analytical thinking ability results in a heavier reliance on smartphones, they explain.

Of course, this is one instance in a long line of “research” and “analysis” provocatively asking if Google, the internet, social networking, or technology in general is impacting human intellectual development in some way. For good or bad. Maybe both.

Did societal observers have the same questions in the aftermath the printing press, telegraph, telephone, radio or any other major change in the way people communicated information? I suspect they did. Did humans get dumber? Smarter? Weirder?

I’m pretty sure the honest answer to the question of what the use of smartphones/instant search/social networking/<insert your tech fear here is doing to our brains is “we don’t know”. All of these digital tools some say we are addicted to (another of those headline concerns) are very, very recent developments in human history. It takes more than a decade or two to sort through all the data.

Which is all the more reason to do our own research. Be introspective about ourselves and observant of others. Pay attention and we’ll watch the future of the human species develop.

I’m pretty optimistic about it.

The Joy of Stupid Questions

From the introduction to a wonderful new book called What If? Serious Scientific Answers to Absurd Hyptothetical Questions by Randall Munroe.

They say there are no stupid questions. That’s obviously wrong; I think my question about hard and soft things1, for example, is pretty stupid. But it turns out that trying to throughly answer a stupid question can take you to some pretty interesting places.

When I was still in the classroom with teenagers,2 we called those side trips triggered by “stupid” questions “teachable moments”.

Unfortunately, too many educators now don’t have time for that kind of explorative, interesting, unexpected learning. They’re too busy “covering material”.

Answer the Question

On the wall in a classroom I visited recently was a poster of ten questions every student asks. It was meant to be humorous, maybe even a little satirical, but there on the list along with “Is this going to be on the test?” and “Can we do something fun today?” was the one that always made me cringe: “When are we ever going to use this?”.

Don’t get me wrong, it’s a good question, one I always felt obligated to try and answer. And maybe the response was easier for the teachers over in the English department or even downstairs in Social Studies. I just never found a good way to present a convincing case for learning Algebra or Geometry to preteens and teenagers.

In high school, the first justification for almost everything seems to be that doing it will help you get into a good college (whatever your definition of “good” might be), or possibly that you’ll soon need it to pass some high stakes test.

Of course, many kids accept (or at least tolerate) whatever is offered to answer their question but it’s a smaller number than in the previous century and likely declining fast.

We owe them better answers. More than that, we need to completely shake up what we do in school and focus instead on helping students learn to formulate the questions and find their own answers.

Asking The Wrong Question

In his post this morning, Seth Godin discusses how businesses almost always interpret – incorrectly – the impact of new technologies.

The question that gets asked about technology, the one that is almost always precisely the wrong question is, “How does this advance help our business?”

The correct question is, “how does this advance undermine our business model and require us/enable us to build a new one?”

So, what happens if we substitute “school” for “business”?

Just a Monday morning thought.

Is There a Strategy?

In a comment on my post from a couple of weeks ago about the sudden rush of changes happening this year in our overly-large school district, Mark asks some very good questions about the bring your own device part of it.

What I want to know is how all these devices will support learning. Is the theory to let the kids bring in the devices and just stay out of their way while students puts their devices to their own highest personal use? Will teachers have to differentiate their lessons according to technology? All jokes aside, is there a strategy?

A strategy? Sort of. Maybe. The school board and district leadership had at least one specific purpose in mind when they approved the initiative. They are pushing “online textbooks”, which they probably think will save money in the long run, and having more devices on which to read them will make that move functional faster.

From the point of view of some of us, there is another strategy, one that is a little more disruptive, one that goes beyond simply shifting from analog materials to digital ones.

Look around and it seems as if learning is rapidly becoming a very personal experience, driven in no small part by the dramatic increase in powerful personal communications devices and the ability (indeed the expectation) to easily share our knowledge and experiences online in multiple formats. Kids are no exception, although what they’re learning may not always be what we think they should.

At least learning is a personal experience almost everywhere. It certainly isn’t in most schools, institutions where we still put an extraordinary amount of effort into standardizing the process, from the presentation to the materials used to the way learning is assessed. And technology use by students is a glaring example: computers largely inaccessible most of the day and totally out of student control.

Having a relatively large number of students carrying their own personal learning device will inevitably change the way classrooms function. To be sure it will be a gradual change since there are plenty of teachers and administrators who will try to maintain strict control of how students interact, with both the machines and each other.

Mark asks if we are just going to let the kids use their devices and stay out of their way and that’s not at all what I want to see. Teachers still need to manage much of the process of learning in school. Manage but not control, a distinction that may be a difficult transition. Also tough, will be the realization that large parts of the curriculum are irrelevant when you have a room full of devices that can easily retrieve basic facts as well as communicate with anyone to develop the meaning of those facts.

However, in the end, the most important change brought about by students bringing their own devices to school will not be teachers differentiating instruction based on technology. They will differentiate based on the students themselves, who will have more control – and more responsibility – over their own learning.

That’s my strategy. We’ll have to see how it works out.