Archive for November, 2007

The Larger Question

Nov 30 2007 Published by under borderland,education,literacy,politics,technology

Gerald Bracey asks 3 questions that might interest education technology bloggers.
The first two:

The immediate questions that come to mind — or certainly should come to mind — are “What constitutes a 21st century skill?” and then “Who gets to define such a skill?” The answer to the first question is “nobody knows” and the answer to the second question is “The Partnership for 21st Century Skills.” Futurist Ed Barlow told the Industrial Asset Management Council in October, 2007 that 80% of the jobs our current kindergartners will hold as adults don’t exist yet. This, I submit, makes it a bit complicated to prepare the kids for them. You would think Barrett and the others would see this: Barlow also said that 90% of Intel’s products at the end of a year didn’t exist at the start of that year.

Among the skills listed by the Partnership are “Ethics and Social Responsibility.” Excuse me? These are areas only now emerging as cogent to the 21st century? “Self-direction?” Yoo-hoo, David Riesman pointed to this in 1950 — The Lonely Crowd. “Critical Thinking” and “Problem Solving” also number among the 21st century skills. I suppose it is boorish to point out that without further context and elaboration, both of these terms are wholly meaningless. Back in the 1960′s some psychologists announced that they wished to produce “content free problem solvers.” That goal is now viewed as absurd. Problem solving always occurs around some content and people who are superb at writing software to solve some statistical problem might be awful at dealing with human beings in an organizational setting (see, Jobs, Gates, and Barrett, above). It might be important to think outside the box, but the contours of the box differ hugely from situation to situation. Jaime Escalante, the inspiration for “Stand and Deliver,” was unable to reproduce his L. A. success when he moved to Sacramento, in large part it appears, because the situations were so different.

He closes with:

All this begs a larger question: Is job preparation what schools should be about?

We’ll need to talk about that last one.

7 responses so far


Nov 29 2007 Published by under borderland,education,politics

3:00@11-28 Dismissal Time

It’s getting dark here. Not just kind of dark. But real winter-dark. As in, I took a picture of the sunset yesterday at 3:00 while everyone was getting their coats on to leave school.

Strangely, it’s not real cold yet, and we’ve only got just a lousy couple inches of leaf-covered snow in the woods. It’s hard and crunchy from the thawing and freezing. Not enough to ski on, but that isn’t stopping some of us. I used the warmish weather last Saturday to get up on the roof and brush out the wood stove chimney. I should have done it last summer, but…I don’t need to think about it then. It’s a lousy job any time of year. The roof is steep, and the old wooden ladder that’s been hanging from the peak for steps and hand holds the last 12 years is kind of rotten. Got to build a new one next summer.

It’s good enough for now, though, which seems to be the standard for deciding what needs doing when conditions are rough. Look for an opening. Do what you can. Keep it simple.

A couple of things caught my attention yesterday. There’s a debate in the LA Times between Richard Rothstein and Russlynn Ali about the achievement gap and testing. They started off discussing what the achievement gap is, how it’s measured, and moved on to whether testing would make it better. Today they discussed the chicken and egg problem of resolving economic conditions that make public education difficult, and education problems that affect the economy.

Thinking of education reform as just being about “this” cause or “that” condition isn’t very helpful. Higher education standards won’t benefit anyone economically if the jobs that people would theoretically be educated for aren’t there to begin with. What’s needed is education and economic opportunity. Neither can stand on its own. Jean Anyon argues that NCLB is really a taxpayer funded jobs policy.

Anyon concludes:

When businesses and large corporations pay poverty-range wages to 41% of the people at work in America, the costs of supporting people’s needs are socialized to the tax-paying public, just as the technological and other costs of doing business have been. The private sector is not liable for the social costs of the poverty its actions produce.

Part of the testing discussion is about how individual states are able to “game” the system by manipulating test data, adjusting the cut scores for proficiency to make themselves look good – a common argument for national standards – and I get hung up on the idea that if data can be manipulated to make schools look good, it can also be manipulated to make them look bad. It cuts both ways. So who are we going to listen to? Good data, bad data, crtics tear apart the methodology, question the assumptions, challenge the interpretations, tell the story so it comes out with the ending they want it to have. I see no resolution to the argument about whether testing is good or bad. It could be either. Or both. It all depends on who’s doing it to who, and for what.

The best I’ve seen on the subject in a while came from Deborah Meier today, addressing Diane Ravitch:

As I gather, however, you are not for tests that are high stakes, but just “fyi”. It’s important, if you hold this view, to spell that out. I doubt if it’s what the NY Times has in mind, nor am I sure it’s do-able until the politicians (and reporters) understand the limits of test data. I would argue that the task of strengthening schools that serve the larger purposes of education cannot be achieved until we flesh out the possible definitions we each hold of what being “well-educated” looks like. There may be more than one answer"”which is why I go back to that other idea: a Consumer Reports on schooling. One that allows us to compare and contrast, but does not seek a single answer.

I note that she said “until the politicians (and reporters) understand the limits of test data.” That part about reporters is significant. Referring to Time’s Joe Klein, Glenn Greenwald calls irresponsible reporters Bad Stenographers. Greenwald explored the responsibility media has to do more than simply “report” what people say. There are limits to objectivity and balance when we’re looking for truth.

What’s happening to the Education discourse is the same thing that’s going on with politics in general. There’s a huge disconnect between what I hear on the news and what I see directly. And it’s going to get darker for a while yet. But even then, you can see pretty well if there’s a moon and a little snow cover to reflect the light.

3 responses so far

Ethos and Blogos in Education

Nov 25 2007 Published by under borderland,education,technology

Miguel Guhlin was responding to Ryan Bretag’s Death of a blogger II about whether blogs could be used as “a collaborative tool for the betterment of education.” Miguel wrote:

Blogs are as alive as the people who keep them, the people who join the conversation, but in the end, blogging is a conversation with the author of the blog. Should blogs be pushed to be MORE than that?

I would suggest that a blog assuming a role beyond what it was intended for is a mistake. A blog or the blogging process has no reason to evolve in itself. The person who writes the blog may start out with the desire to transform education, but because a blog is intensely personal, blogging is about achieving personal transformation, not societal change.

If Miguel’s premise is correct, that blogs are “as alive as the people who keep them,” then maybe some blogs would not be vehicles for personal transformation, as Miguel sees them. If a person is inclined to introspection then the blog may encourage and reflect that. But if not…there are a lot of bloggers (popular and otherwise) who seem to have no interest in using their blog for personal transformation. Transformation seems to be a presumption of the education blogger, a minor breed of the larger species. If a blog was devoted to dissemination of information, pushing a policy agenda, or promoting a product then the blog might be simply a publishing platform, which it is well suited for.

I don’t see “transformation” as a particularly strong selling point for the blogging practice since transformative experiences are generally unsettling to people. Going to graduate school was transformative, also. And in some ways it soured me on teaching since reading all that research and trying some things in the classroom broke the little bubble of faith I had in the “experts” who wrote the books. So, I write now, too. I write back. I write back to all the education research that misses the point, that obscures the practice, that distorts the picture. I write to fulfill my professional goal to be a minor pain in the ass. It keeps me off the streets.

Societal change? Naw.

4 responses so far

Into the Enigma

Nov 22 2007 Published by under borderland

My daughter called me from Europe last week to tell me that she’d seen Into the Wild. We talked about the local (Alaskan) reaction to the film, which was interesting to her since none of those issues are brought out in the movie. As it happens, I watched the film later that day, and I’m thinking now about how it plays here in Alaska.

Chris McCandless’ story was much like mine – up to the part where he walked off into the country to starve to death. For about 5 years during my early 20s, I drifted. I was a fruit tramp, hitching rides and harvesting crops in Washington and Arizona. I hung out in Mexico for months on end, spent a winter in an abandoned log barn in the mountains of N. Idaho (near friends) cutting wood with a bow saw to keep warm and busy. I left in April after living for 5 months on corn, beans, rice, tomatoes, flour, oats, apples, and some beavers and rabbits.

A year and a half and several “projects” later I headed to Alaska with a half-baked plan to live there on my own terms. I took classes at the university for a teaching credential because I had a kid by then and I needed a way to provide for her. I also wanted wilderness survival skills, so I joined a climbing club and learned about glacier travel, climbing snow and ice, and avalanche danger. I fell into a crevasse right after discussing with my partner whether we needed to rope up on the Castner Glacier. I hiked alone in summer and crossed a few scary rivers. But so what?

As Alaskan stories go, mine are unremarkable, maybe even typical for anyone who wanders off the beaten path. Here, we find ourselves in primitive conditions just a few minutes from most any road. We recognize the difference between rustic and remote locations, and that’s why we have trouble with Krakauer’s version of Chris McCandless’ tragic Alaska sojourn.

McCandless supposedly trained for his Alaskan odyssey, running and climbing. He pushed his limits and learned to travel light. Why, then, did he ignore the most basic and portable survival aid – knowledge? With mentors to show him the ropes, he’d have had more options when his plans started to unravel. He didn’t even have a map.

Into the Wild is interesting for what it doesn’t say about the end of Chris McCandless’s trail. McCandless is the romantic hero of the movie, rejecting social conventions and making his own path. Never mentioned in the film, though, is that the path to the old bus where he spent his summer was a mere two day walk from a major highway, along a well established mining trail. There was an old tram he could have used to cross the Teklanika River just a mile downstream from where he unsuccessfully tried to cross on his attempt to get back to the highway. Why didn’t he look for a wider, and shallower, spot to cross?

To people who understand where he was, he seems like a fugitive from the narrow confines of common sense. We wonder if he was merely a fool. Or was he insane? And why is his story being mythologized now? Krakaur’s theory that McCandless died of food poisoning is crucial for maintaining his thesis that his hero was the tragic victim of bad luck. But his theory has not withstood empirical validation.

Since the movie, there has been a great deal of public discussion about what (if anything) should be done with the bus. The general concern is that movie crazed starry eyed romantics will come similarly unprepared and require rescue or assistance. Or maybe they’ll just annoy everyone with vacuous epiphanies. For now, the derelict bus remains where it’s been for the past several decades, awaiting further discovery and celebration.

Stories are told and retold for a reason. Their meanings are shaped and nurtured by the people who tell and hear them. I’m curious what purpose this one serves. Sherry Simpson wrote:

We can’t afford to take his story seriously because it doesn’t say much a careful person doesn’t already know about desire and survival. The lessons are so obvious as to be laughable: Look at a map. Take some food. Know where you are. Listen to people who are smarter than you. Be humble. Go on out there — but it won’t mean much unless you come back.

To realize any far-fetched goal it takes an ability to sort through the objective difficulties and the subjective dangers that come from an excess of attitude. It also takes some luck. And to the degree that you stay humble and listen to other people, you make your own luck. Chris McCandless has my respect for pushing his limits to reach his ideals. He may have been shortsighted and foolish, but who among us hasn’t been guilty of that? He wasn’t skilled or lucky enough to anonymously retreat from his peak moment. Krakauer, however, doesn’t tell that story. And in Alaska the question remains, Why?

Into the Wild sources:

7 responses so far

Diagnostic Intervention

Nov 17 2007 Published by under borderland,education,teacher research

Bill Kerr’s post triggered some thinking related to education and curriculum design. Asking what sort of computer interface is suitable for learning, Bill said

We have become very used to a certain style of user interface, one which is "œuser friendly" and which gives us access to the function of the computer. The user friendly user interface has been designed by experts to not demand too much of the end user. Some systems take this a step further and actively discourage the user from becoming curious about how things work under the hood.

I see an analogy between the computer GUI and the textbook, the user interface for curriculum. The textbook “has been designed by experts to not demand too much of the end user.” In the case of scripted curricula, “Some systems take this a step further and actively discourage the end user from becoming curious about how things work under the hood.” See my thinking, here? In the last 15 years, textbooks have become massively complex “systems” with supplementary materials and teacher manuals that you need a wheelbarrow to cart around.

Bill points out that commercialization defines the application for the sake of marketability. Because large publishers target their products at the largest adopters, the curricula of California, Texas, and Florida become the de facto curriculum for everyone else. Bill makes a case for the computer user to become a constructionist designer who participates in the construction of their own tools. He recommends an object oriented programming approach that would blur the boundaries between tool and medium.

I think this would be a great idea for curriculum and assessment as well. Going back to my earlier post about the philosophical and theoretical base for curriculum design, teachers, parents, and students will need to become critical consumers of what are more and more called “solutions and services” to educational needs. Or, like consumers of any commercial product, we can expect to continue working with the design problems we inherit from ill-fitting ready-made programs.

Mostly, I find that teachers have to re-engineer everything before we can use it. The math book doesn’t have enough practice work. The social studies book doesn’t have enough hands-on projects. So we supplement. I see this as wasteful. We pay a lot of money for stuff that doesn’t quite suit the need. What’s needed is time and resources that allow us to begin actively participating in design work starting from a framework defined by standards. We have to become experts in more that just pedagogy. Content and historical knowledge in the academic disciplines is also necessary.

This isn’t the trend, though. What I see is something more like Edgar Schein’s coercive persuasion, which he points out is something that “can be used equally for goals that we deplore and goals that we accept.” Coercive persuasion, he says, is “…comparable to what it feels like to an employee or manager when they are told that the way they have worked for decades is no longer adequate and that they will have to learn some completely new concepts and skills in order to retain their jobs.” From an educational perspective, Schein’s article on Kurt Lewin’s change theory is worth a look. I especially liked this use of a medical metaphor:

If Lewin was correct that one cannot understand an organization without trying to change it, how is it possible to make an adequate diagnosis without intervening? So either consultants using the classical model are getting an incorrect picture of the organization, or they are intervening but are denying it by labeling it “just diagnosis.” Isn’t a better initial model of work with organizations something like the stress test that the cardiologist performs by putting the heart under pressure to see how it will perform, even knowing that there are some risks and that some people have been hurt during the test itself? This risk forces the diagnostician to think about the nature of the “diagnostic intervention” and to apply clinical criteria for what is safe, rather than purely scientific criteria of what would seemingly give the most definitive answer.

As the privatization and school improvement industry ramps up, everyone needs to think about the assumptions embedded in what’s being presented. Whenever an edublogger starts talking about organizational change, as I have here, my brain glazes over with the futility of the mere suggestion. So, please excuse me. What I propose is that the “end users” begin to recognize the persuasive techniques that are being used to marshal support for various recommendations, and to feel free to stick an oar in the water every now and then as the opportunity arises to make something good happen, or to learn something that nobody else can tell us. For me teaching is a form of inquiry.

4 responses so far

Reader Returns

Nov 14 2007 Published by under borderland,technology

My Google Reader snag from last week has been cleared up. After my help request, I got an email from “The Google Team” with a list of helpful suggestions, all of which I’d tried – things like clearing the browser cache, disabling browser extensions, and so forth. It took a week, but they’ve got it running right again.

I tried to get comfortable with BlogBridge, but I still prefer having a reader in the browser. One of the things liked about BlogBridge was that I could bookmark articles right from the reader, and I set up a new shared bookmarks feed, to post a list of recently read articles to the blog sidebar. I’ll keep that there, but since my old reader is back on I’ve restored its shared feed, and I’m back up to speed. Glad it’s running again.

2 responses so far

Herd Poisoning

Nov 14 2007 Published by under borderland,complexity,education,politics,technology

Graham Wegner points out some problems that cropped up in the comments of a couple of education blogs. He comments on the perils of taking up heartfelt issues in blog comments, and assuming we’ll be understood.

Neil Postman’s Crazy Talk, Stupid Talk has an excerpted chapter, Propaganda [pdf], in which he argues that propaganda is a kind of stupid talk that requires an uncritical acceptance of a point of view. That makes sense, and at what point should Education bloggers recognize their own role in propanda propagation? Postman says that it’s worth making a distinction between language that says “Believe this” and language that says “Consider this.” I know I’m not bulletproof here, but I think this might be a good guideline for any of us who want to avoid getting carried away with our own BS.

According to Postman, propaganda

…is a form of stupid talk that can be, and has been, extremely dangerous. It is dangerous for two reasons. First, propaganda demands a way of responding which can become habitual. If we allow ourselves, too easily, to summon the emotions that our own causes require, we may be unable to hold them back when confronted with someone else’s causes. And second, propaganda has a tendency to work best on groups rather than individuals. It has the effect of turning groups into crowds, which is what Huxley calls “herd poisoning.”

Postman’s reference to ‘herd poisoning’ came from Huxley’s Brave New World, Revisited. We might substitute the term, ‘group think’ there. After reading Huxley’s essay, especially the chapter, Propaganda in a Democratic Society, I’m thinking about the lack of authority teachers and minority voices have in the education policy reform discourse. Huxley’s 50 year-old essay could have been written yesterday.

In regard to propaganda the early advocates of universal literacy and a free press envisaged only two possibilities: the propaganda might be true, or it might be false. They did not foresee what in fact has happened, above all in our Western capitalist democracies — the development of a vast mass communications industry, concerned in the main neither with the true nor the false, but with the unreal, the more or less totally irrelevant. In a word, they failed to take into account man’s almost infinite appetite for distractions.

Public policy discourse is buried under a barrage of information. Everybody’s an expert. Alexander Russo has a theory about why no one trusts teachers. He says it’s because educators suffer from a (perceived) conflict of interest, and we should understand how hard it is for non-educators to take what we say as gospel. I agree. The question of Who do you trust? is as much about values as expertise. I had a dentist who recommended a lot of expensive reconstructive work when my teeth started falling apart. He had some theories about what would happen if I didn’t do what he recommended. I didn’t believe him, and I found a new dentist who was willing to work with me. I’m happier now, and my teeth are still in decent shape.

If anyone thinks that improving schools is going to close all the gaps they might first want to ask why obesity is now a public health issue in the US. It must be something in the water.

2 responses so far

Considering the Source in Reading Programs

Nov 08 2007 Published by under borderland,literacy,politics,reading wars,science

Tom Hoffman writes about a model for developing open source K-12 curriculum. He posted a link to the research base used in his example, and he offers a disclaimer:

…I’m not at all qualified to state whether this curriculum is actually any good or ideologically correct. There may be vast “Reading Wars” sub-texts here which are completely lost on me.

Stephen Downes comments on the paper that lead Tom to this site:

I don’t think that some of the solutions that seem obvious – like pooling buying power and research – are necessarily the best way to go, because such ‘big’ solutions tend to impose a uniformity on the system that is not healthy (and is endlessly subject to politics and manipulation).

To make sense here, we need to distinguish between the curriculum development process and the product, because as both Tom and Stephen point out, philosophy and politics are at the heart of the matter. Tom invited comment on the content of the site, and I’ll offer mine. I’d probably give it anyway, since the politics of this is worth discussing.

Tom’s example is, maybe, unfortunate in that it points to a decidedly non-progressive vision for reading curriculum. The “Reading Wars” are an ideological battle about whether students are best served by a word level, or a holistic approach to making meaning. It’s boiled down over the years to different camps trying to promote their own research base, and to discredit the other’s. The reason why the term, “scientifically based reading research” has entered the educational lexicon is to bolster claims of efficacy for one particular approach. Of course, we should understand what ‘scientific’ means in this context.

Ken Goodman:

…the phrase “Scientifically Based Reading Research” was put into NCLB over and over as a code phrase for a particular view of reading instruction advocated by a small group centered at the University of Oregon around Distarr, a forty year old behavioral synthetic phonics reading program originally authored by Sigfried Engelmann. Under its current publisher McGraw Hill it became Direct Instruction Reading. Douglas Carnine, a U of Oregon professor and Direct Instruction author, coined the phrase, Scientifically Based Reading Research, first in the so-called “reading wars.”

The research base that Tom pointed to represents a strongly cognitivist / behavioral philosophy toward early reading instruction, which appeals to the direct instruction advocates. Some of the researchers whose work is cited, including Carnine, have also been named as players in the Reading First controversy, which is as much about money as ideology.

Stephen’s comment about solutions that “tend to impose uniformity on the system” applies in this case, since these folks have apparently helped to narrow the definition of reading research in order to eliminate alternative opinions about whose evidence carries the most weight.

I get suspicious I hear phrases like: “The research on how students learn to read is well-established,” or “The research on which instructional techniques work is well-understood.” because claims like that are meant to silence discussion about the philosophical differences at the heart of the “Reading Wars.” My answer to the question about why they developed this company is just a guess. But I suppose it’s to make money marketing instructional materials that draw on that research base.

I’m sure Tom didn’t want a bunch of grief about his example. Putting my criticisms of the project aside, I agree with him that curriculum development has to happen around some agreement on first principles. I’ve done curriculum development work with the school district here, and we never start from scratch. But we also don’t usually talk about the philosophical base for the research that informs it. These days, everything points back to test scores. Ideally, we’d have several prominent examples to work from, reflecting a variety of philosophical viewpoints. A curriculum, like software, is designed for a purpose, and asking what it does is just as important as knowing whether it works.

Doing that kind of work in support of progressive principles, home-grown for public school consumption, would be a great project. But it would have to leave space for public buy-in so that it stood a chance of being implemented without fighting yet another battle in the Reading Wars. I wonder if that could even happen.

7 responses so far

Aggregator Aggravation

Nov 07 2007 Published by under borderland,technology

If John Lennon’s song had another verse that said, “Imagine there’s no Google….” I’d know something about that because my Google Reader has been “loading” for the past day. No, I haven’t actually been watching the little spinning icon in the yellow bar because I’ve got better things to do, but every now and then I try to get into the account, and I can’t. When I tried to open the Reader settings, I got an error message.

google error message

Clicking on the “More” link in anyone’s “Shared Feeds” gives me the same thing.

I still have a Bloglines account, but it’s been so long since I paid attention to it that it’s out of date, without many of the feeds I currently read. It was interesting to see what was in there, like finding a box of old stuff in the basement. But I’m not going back. Instead, I spent my lunch time today downloading BlogBridge, and I’ve been locating the feeds from a combination of memory, bookmarks, and google history.

Funny thing, yesterday I was planning on introducing Google Reader to the teachers I’m working with in the web2.0 course we’re doing together. I told them that RSS delivers web content to you and puts you at the center of your own network. But I couldn’t do it because I couldn’t get into my account. So there I was, kicked out of my own little corner of the web – a pedestrian again.

I don’t want to dump the account because I want to keep the email. And the Reader has worked fine until now. I sent Google an SOS, but with little faith that a real person will respond. This is what I get for using such centralized services. Dependence and disappointment when they jam up. I have no idea what’s going on.

I’m getting used to the idea of living in a Google Reader-free zone for a while. I’m stoking the fire in the woodstove and piling up books for the winter.

6 responses so far

Thick Description

Nov 05 2007 Published by under borderland,complexity,politics,teacher research

We had parent conferences last week. They’re a time for me to learn more about my students, just as much as they give me a chance to report on their progress. For the parents who don’t make it to the meeting, I give them a call some time during the following week. But the phone calls aren’t nearly as informative as what I learn from simple eye contact.

We pick up a lot of information in face to face conversations – things that are never discussed. The handshake, tone of voice, posture, and bundles of other qualitative data tell us lots of things in addition to what’s said in a meeting. The parents are my informants, and they help me understand a lot of other things I don’t clearly see in the day to day classroom doings.

Teachers need to be interpreters of classroom experience, which is what I was doing with parents in our meetings. We need to understand not only what’s happening in the classroom, but we need to also understand what the students and parents think is happening. I listen. I look at the classroom like an ethnographer much of the time, and I suppose I was feeling a little bit like an anthropologist last week when I saw this post by danah boyd, writing about doing ethnography with teenagers, trying to understand how networked communication technologies shape their lives.

Boyd talked about the difficulty of “going native” and learning about her informants when they moved between spaces. She said:

I was not able to truly move between the spaces with teens. I couldn’t follow an individual teen from morning to night, going to school, activities, home, etc. with them because of different structural limitations (think schools, laws and IRBs). My views of teen life were necessarily staccato, not seamless. And I found this deeply frustrating.

I know how she feels. Teachers can only imagine the lives that students live outside of school. And this makes it hard to see them completely. She illustrated this problem of getting to the bottom of things with a story that Clifford Geertz shared in his essay Thick Description:

“There is an Indian story – at least I heard it as an Indian story – about an Englishman who, having been told that the world rested on a platform which rested on the back of an elephant which rested in turn on the back of a turtle, asked (perhaps he was an ethnographer; it is the way they behave), what did the turtle rest on? Another turtle. And that turtle? ‘Ah, Sahib, after that it is turtles all the way down.’” (Geertz 1973)

I’d heard this little story before. And I’d also heard the term ‘thick description’ in my graduate coursework on teacher research, but I didn’t know that Clifford Geertz had anything to do with either of them. I liked the story because it challenges the belief in first causes. And right now I’m hearing a lot about teacher effectiveness as if it is the be-all, end-all of education reform. I’m on a campaign against cause/effect beliefs about what schooling can, but isn’t, doing.

Danah Boyd said that this layered view of culture suggests that we can perhaps understand “a layer or two,” and she said that she finds it hard to gain a purchase in a world that keeps shifting between digital and physical spaces. Maybe I’ve just got used to the fact that I’ll never have the whole story. The classroom piece, which I’m certainly a big part of, is a mystery without access to the other pieces. This wouldn’t be quite such a problem in a monocultural society where we might reliably depend on a common set of assumptions about family life. The computer mediated social experience of kids isn’t a huge factor, in my mind. It simply adds another layer of complexity.

I got curious about Geertz, and his essay [ pdf ] with the little story in it. He makes an argument for a semiotic view of culture, rather than viewing it as “mental phenomena which can be “analyzed by formal methods.” He used Gilbert Ryles’ question about how we recognize the difference between a blink and a wink as an example of how significance is assigned to behavior. We do it on the fly, as participants in a particular place and time. Geertz said that

…man is an animal suspended in webs of significance he himself has spun, I take culture to be those webs, and the analysis of it to be therefore not an experimental science in search of law but an interpretive one in search of meaning.”

In the US right now, teachers are paying too much attention to test scores and other objective performance measures that are reported to people outside the classroom. And increasingly, we rely on them to tell us what our own students are learning. But there’s so much other information that we have. It’s the stuff we work around in the classroom – behavior and attitudes, history and habit – in a word, culture. And it’s mostly out of order, so it doesn’t lend itself to easy analysis. But we can’t, and shouldn’t, ignore it because it tells us about who our students are, and who they think they are. And it is those cues which enable us to make the human connections with kids that have real meaning.

2 responses so far

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