Archive for October, 2007

Iterations Toward Irrelevance

Oct 26 2007 Published by under borderland,commonplaces,technology

Wondering about how we lose touch with what everyone else seems to be talking about. At some point I stopped caring about popular music, for example. I listen to it on the radio now when the kids are in the car. But I don’t care about it like they do. I stopped paying attention to it when I got busy doing other stuff. Like everything else. John Prine’s on the Pandora Radio right now. He’s not pop, though, is he? Another example: I never saw a single episode of Friends until it was out of production. Lots of stuff is like that. I live in a cultural cul-de-sac.

I’m thinking about this because there’s been some blog chatter lately about Twitter. Graham Wegner and Will Richardson, for example. Some people are blaming Twitter for interfering with their blogging, which seems a bit strange. People start communicating through a channel that allows only short bursts of text, and they feel conflicted about not being more reflective. Then they write about that on their blogs. And I end up reading it and thinking about how twisted things can get. But that’s OK. ‘Twisted’ is lots of things I like.

Of course, there is the positive side. Chris Lott made the pro Twitter case several months ago asking,

Wasn"™t it just a few years ago that blogs were being singled out because they were too ephemeral and constant complaints being aired about the lack of thought that went into such easy publishing? And before that wasn"™t it the death of the essay and long form news? What about epic poems? Where is our Homer (and I don"™t mean Homer Simpson)?

More recently, Chris published a link to Twitter Collaboration Stories, so we can maybe see a few new possibilities for this environment. I say, Ok, maybe Twitter isn’t “robbing blogs of their vigor.” I can see that it taps into an alternative semantic environment, and it’s better suited for some purposes than others. I get that. Tom Hoffman shared this post yesterday that compared Twitter with IRC. That was helpful since I’ve had just a tiny bit of exposure to IRC.

Guy Kawasaki says that Twitter made his website better, but that’s neither here nor there for me.

I was thinking about whether Twitter would be something that I’d want to look into, and what might happen if I did. Mostly, it didn’t look like anything I wanted to get close to. And then, this comment from Stephen Downes on Tom Hoffman’s post helped put the idea to rest. Downes said…

….My issue with Twitter is a bit different. I could not subscribe to anything like a reasonable number of Twitter feeds.

It would mean that I have to select some people to listen to and others to ignore completely. Twitter chatter really would be unintelligeble taken all out of context. Especially when people are commenting to people I don’t read.

Twitter creates group behaviour. It creates boundaries. It creates cliques.

I can’t afford to lock my attention to one group rather than to the wider network. So I can’t focus my attention on Twitter – I stay focused on the wider blogosphere and the web, however imperfectly.

The problem of limited capacity for attention is a regular issue for me in an elementary school classroom. But it isn’t just an auditory thing. Distractions of any kind require the ability to set something aside so that other (maybe temporarily) important things get done. I like to read and write as an escape from the classroom noise. Friends and connections are great, but they aren’t my focus. The family gets all that.

I’m going to let Twitter pass. I already don’t listen to podcasts or watch videos very much because they take too long to download, and the few I’ve heard are mostly not worth the wait.

I guess this is how we get to be sticks-in-the-mud. One technology at a time.

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This Explains Everything

Oct 24 2007 Published by under borderland,education,politics

Paul Krugman:

Some people seem to think that I’m saying that racism and the other issues I classify as “weapons of mass distraction” are what movement conservatism is about. They aren’t.

What the movement is about is economics: the core goal is, as Heritage says in its fundraising letters, to roll back the New Deal and the Great Society — or as Grover Norquist puts it, to get things back to the way they were “up until Teddy Roosevelt, when the socialists took over.”

Race and other distractions aren’t the goal, they’re a tactic — they’re how an anti-populist movement wins elections.

I think we can add standardized education reform to the list, also. Oh, and let’s not forget performance pay, which Eduwonkette points out is not generally awarded to workers in the private sector based on client outcomes.

It seemed to me from the beginning of this testing juggernaut that the most certain outcome of using standardized test scores to evaluate schools, teachers, and students would be to set up a grand finger-pointing drama in which everyone claims to be the victim of someone else’s bad faith. I hate to say it, but…there we go.

And even this shall one day pass. But I wonder what might be left of faith in anything by then.

For whatever it may have been worth, I sent George Miller a message, and received a response. I suggested that it would be a better idea to:

  • emphasize class size reduction,
  • provide resources for quality teacher training,
  • provide mentors for new teachers,
  • provide teachers in adequate numbers to meet the needs of learning disabled and ELL students,
  • and provide for programs that promote parental and family involvement in our schools.

His response was discouraging, though, because he has the idea that accountability using multiple measures means more tests:

For elementary schools, these “multiple indicators” include increases in the percentages of students who move from below basic to basic levels of proficiency and improvements in state science, writing, history, social studies, or civics tests.

No, no, no, no, no.

Oh, and in case anyone thinks that I object to testing because it narrows the curriculum, I don’t. I object to the curriculum itself. Testing just makes it worse.

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Between Scylla and Charybdis

Oct 20 2007 Published by under borderland,education,politics

There are many other things I could be writing about. But I got sidetracked by teacherken:

I am angry. I despair. I am outraged. I am exhausted. I teach about a government that perhaps no longer exists, one that had three co-equal branches, that had checks and balances, in which the power of the executive was limited, in which governmental functions were done by governmental employees subject to Congressional oversight….Where is the outrage over this? Where is the insistence by Democrats and honest Republicans for accountability? Why is the press so hesitant to fully scrutinize?

He’s responding to Bill Moyer’s interview with Jeremy Scahill about the private security force, Blackwater USA and Congressional hearings about the recent shooting of several dozen Iraqi civilians.

BILL MOYERS:: Didn’t I read somewhere that one of our generals said we couldn’t be here without Blackwater and these other companies? We couldn’t be occupying. Or something to that effect?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Yeah. I mean, well, General Petraeus himself has been guarded by private contractors in Iraq. I mean, what message did that send when the general who’s overseeing the surge in Iraq is guarded at times not by the US military, but by private forces.

BILL MOYERS:: What message does that send?

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, I think it sends a message that the United States military is essentially a subservient player to a corporate army in Iraq.

BILL MOYERS:: I don’t read that. I read it that Blackwater is the corollary to the– complement to the essential lode star for the military.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Well, Erik Prince likes to describe Blackwater as the sort of Federal Express of the national security apparatus. He says if you want a package to get somewhere, do you send it through the post office or do you send it through FedEx? But the fact is, the US military is the junior partner in the coalition that’s occupying Iraq to these private companies. There are over 170 mercenary companies like Blackwater operating in Iraq right now. That’s almost as many nations as are registered at the UN. And I think this isn’t just about Iraq. It’s also looting the US treasury.

BILL MOYERS:: What does it say that this industry has become so essential, this peace and stability industry– these mercenaries as you call them.

JEREMY SCAHILL: Right. Well, I think we’re in the midst of the most radical privatization agenda in our nation’s history. We of course see it in schools. We see it in the health care system, in prisons. And now, we’re seeing it full blown in the war machine. What I ultimately see as the real threat here is that the system of the very existence of the nation state I think is at stake here. Because you have companies now that have been funded with billions of dollars in public money using that money to then build up the infrastructure of private armies some of which could take out a small national military. And the old model used to be if a company wants to go into Nigeria for instance and exploit oil, they have to work with the juntas forces in order to do that. Now, you can just bring in your own private military force.

BILL MOYERS:: Is it conceivable to you that these private contractors could be– could wind up fighting the war against drugs in Columbia? Fighting the terrorists–

JEREMY SCAHILL: They already are.

Scahill claims that the real revolution in American politics is the privatization of public institutions, a process that is “tearing away at the fabric of American democracy” through the funneling of billions of dollars of public money to private businesses – money that finds its way back into the campaign funds of politicians who are making it happen to begin with.

Teacherken is outraged that the Democrats elected in 2006 aren’t vigorously challenging this trend. But Democrats are politicians, too.

Scahill says that there are over 170 of these companies in Iraq. They’re also in Bolivia, Ecuador, and Columbia. They’re hiring soldiers from all over the world and deploying them wherever they have contracts. So, I ask, what might it take to put these guys on the streets anywhere in the world?

Makes talking about educational technology, school reform, and literacy education seem kind of unimportant at the moment. Except that they are all connected to the privatization revolution. Take the merit pay and teacher unions issue, for example.

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The Big Picture

Oct 17 2007 Published by under borderland,commonplaces,technology

arctic sea ice

From the Earth Observatory News Room:

The Arctic Ocean’s shift from perennial to seasonal ice is preconditioning the sea ice cover there for more efficient melting and further ice reductions each summer. The shift to seasonal ice decreases the reflectivity of Earth’s surface and allows more solar energy to be absorbed in the ice-ocean system.

The Earth Observatory puts out a newsletter, for people who want to see the big picture.

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Homework for Pirates

Oct 12 2007 Published by under borderland,commonplaces,education

Yesterday one of my students had some gold coins with mysterious markings on them, and I asked him where they came from. I don’t know, he said. I told him they looked like something you’d find in a pirate’s chest.

He said, “I have a shirt that says, ‘Pirates took my homework’. And that’s kind of impossible because pirates only took things of value.”

A clever commentary on homework. Now I wonder what kind of homework would a pirate want? Mostly, it has a low exchange value.

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Setting the Dial on Rationality

Davis and Sumara’s book about complexity theory in education, mentions the Santa Fe Institute, a center for complexity research, but I’d never heard of it. They also referred to a book by M. Mitchell Waldrop, Complexity: The Emerging Science at the Edge of Order and Chaos, which as it turns out, tells the story of the beginning of the Santa Fe Institute. So I’ve been reading, catching up on this chapter in the recent history of science.

It’s a good book for a non-technical reader. It’s written in journalistic style, like one of Tom Wolfe’s books, and it tells the story of Brian Arthur, an economist who wasn’t satisfied with conventional economic models that describe the marketplace as a stable equilibrium-seeking system. Arthur’s intuition was that markets don’t exist as a closed system, and that conventional models of the economy don’t accurately account for adaptive and irrational choices made by decision-making agents. Waldrop’s book reads like a hero’s quest, with Brian Arthur challenging the reductionist assumptions of modern science.

This interests me because I recognize the classroom as a complex system, also. And most of the education reform rhetoric is based on similar reductionist cause/effect assumptions as the ones that Brian Arthur challenged.

Tom Hoffman’s comment on a post of Bill Kerr’s got me thinking. Tom said:

One thing that drives me crazy about our favorite ed-tech K-12 Web 2.0 rhetoricians is the exclusion of modernity and modernism from the discourse. To get this right you have to understand modernity and then understand how new technology sits on top of it.

That comment connected with something I found in Waldrop’s book. There was a discussion between Arthur and Frank Hahn, in which Arthur remembers them thinking about the question of

“How do you deal with bounded rationality? That is, what would really happen to economic theory if they quit assuming that people could instantaneously compute their way to the solution of any economic problem (p. 250).”

Which sounds like what happens when we use standardized testing to drive education policy.

One thing about the internet, there is plenty of opportunity to gather background information. I’m no expert on modernism as an intellectual movement, but progress, reason, technology, and a new world order all seem to be bundled together in it. I’m reading more now to get a better handle on this:

Seriously, Hahn continued while Arthur tried to laugh, there is only one way to be perfectly rational, while there are an infinity of ways to be partially rational. So which way is correct for human beings? “Where,” he asked, do your set the dial of rationality? (p. 251)

The point here is that the classroom, like the economy, doesn’t always behave like a machine with direct causes and effects, but it does require some rational limits. What are they, and how should they be determined? Classroom dynamics come from impulsive and idiosyncratic behavior by everyone in the group to one another as well as to the structural limitations and possibilities presented by the system. What does this mean for the teacher, the researcher, the politician, or the ed-tech reformer?

The answer was suggested with Brian Arthur’s insight about the limits of rationality:

“Economics, as it is usually practiced, operates in a purely deductive mode….Every economic situation is first translated into a mathematical exercise, which the economic agents are supposed to solve by rigorous, analytical reasoning. But then here were Holland, the neural net people, and the other machine-learning theorists. And they were all talking about agents that operate in an inductive mode, in which they try to reason from fragmentary data to a useful internal model. Induction is what allows us to infer the existence of a cat from the glimpse of a tail vanishing around a corner. Induction is what allows us to walk through the zoo and classify some exotic feathered creature as a bird, even though we’ve never seen a scarlet-creseted cockatoo before,. Induction is what allows us to survive in a messy, unpredictable and often incomprehensible world.(p. 253)

There’s a zen spirit in teaching well that needs to be recognized.

Bill Kerr commented that my earlier post held a contradiction between the “twitch speed management” of RSS feeds, and slow deep thinking that some complex articles might demand. I liked the twitch speed characterization. And I see his point about the contradiction. It’s a messy, unpredictable, and often incomprehensible world. As it should be.

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Managing the InfoStream

Oct 04 2007 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,technology


Chris Lott’s post about managing the infostream comes at a time when I’m feeling overwhelmed with competing demands for my time and attention. There are hundreds of unread feeds in my reader, and a dozen open tabs on the web browser while I grade papers, plan lessons, meet with teachers, call parents, and work through the intricate details of managing an e-style writing workshop, learn new math and social studies curricula, participate in a large university sponsored grant-funded science project….business as usual sometimes runs a little heavy. Blogging much? Well, thinking about it isn’t the same as really doing it. Or is it?

Chris advises: “First, and perhaps hardest, we have to learn to be OK with not "œkeeping up" in the traditional sense.” He recommends learning to feel comfortable “treading water” rather than absorbing everything that comes along. That sounds good to me, because it’s all I can do at the moment. The metaphor of swimming is a good one; going with and across the current, not against it, saving energy.

He said,

Keeping up in the information age doesn"™t mean absorbing everything in your immediate vicinity, it means keeping your network tuned and fresh so that the information is there when you need it. The important things find their way to you because they carry some of the energy of other participants.

We need strategies for handling the many things that “find their way” to us. I have a couple.

Google Reader is one of them. It has an ass-kicking keystroke shortcut function for plowing through feeds. The “j” and the “k” keys rip them open, forward and back. (The “k” key is good when I’m too quick with the “j”.) The Command Key (similar to a PC’s alt key?) with a link click opens a new browser tab, without taking me away from the Reader. And I bear down on that “j” key, marking “star” or “share” for things that seem worth looking at again as the titles and opening paragraphs flow past.

I slow down and read more closely whenever something grabs my attention. It’s hard to say what that might be. Later on I look through the open tabs for additional reading. The feeds are set for list view, and they’re set up in folders like different sections of the newspaper. If life gets hectic, and things pile up too deep, I “mark all as read” and forget about it.

And then, there’s the reading. Learning how to read faster is a good trick, so this post from Savage Minds about how to read a book in an hour looked interesting. I’m not a fast reader, and I want to work on this, but I don’t think I could ever read a substantial book in an hour, as cKelty suggests, no matter how well I scan it before I do the actual reading.

The idea of reading a book in an hour seemed audacious enough to grab my attention, but reading web texts is what takes up a fair amount of my time now. This paper about how to read gives some excellent strategies for informational reading. The author, Paul Edwards, details a thinking process for actively making meaning.

He points out that most informational texts are structured so that the more general information is presented in the introduction(s) and conclusion, with the details and examples in the middle. So pay attention to the big ideas at the beginning and the end.

For screen reading, he recommends paraphrasing and questioning as note taking techniques instead of copying and pasting, since meaning is made when we summarize, question, and connect ideas to other texts or personal experiences.

Most books – and blogs – are part of a larger discussion, and getting up to speed with an unfamiliar topic requires a lot of additional reading, which makes the bibliography or references a rich source of background material.

And then, we should remember that there is always a danger of informing ourselves to death, as Neil Postman warned. He saw that when information becomes a consumable commodity, we need to have some place to put it, or something to do with it. The problem isn’t with the amount of information, though. The problem is with our stance toward it. We suffer from information overload when we don’t understand its relevance to the world we live in, to it’s historical and social significance. Postman questions the value of information as a commodity by asking if more information is truly the answer to any of our major problems.

I’ll tread water when it reaches flood stage. Letting go is a survival strategy, too.

Photo Credit: Ed Bartlett at the giant.
Description: Ed Bartlett operating hydraulic mining equipment at Independence Creek in the Circle Mining District. (1913 to 1939). Alaska and Polar Regions Collections, Elmer E. Rasmuson Library, University of Alaska Fairbanks.

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