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Tightening the narrative around school change

The stories our leaders tell us matter, probably almost as much as the stories our parents tell us as children, because they orient us to what is, what could be, and what should be; to the worldviews they hold and to the values they hold sacred.

In an opinion piece in the New York Times, Drew Westen, a professor of psychology at Emory University, argues that President Obama has failed to tell the story he needed to offer in order to effectively lead the country through these turbulent times. Obama, according to Westen, campaigned under a pretty clear narrative of “hope,” but has never really fully developed or told the story that “…would have offered a clear, compelling alternative to the dominant narrative…”

With the Iowa-tailored version of the widely viewed Did You Know? videos, Scott McLeod (with some help from XPlane and others) is trying to re-frame the dominant narrative around schooling through a modern lens. Scott’s a highly-respected colleague and a dear friend. But, while I’m on a roll in airing professional disagreements with dear colleagues/friends, I thought I’d offer a critique of the video.

Here’s the logic of the video, as best I see it:

  • Computers were invented; EVERYTHING changed.
    • There are a ton of cell phones being used in the world.
    • There are a whole lot of people using social media (babies are tweeting in utero!).
    • There’s a lot of information online.
    • A lot of people own a lot of gadgets.
  • Iowa is struggling to keep up.
    • Lots of kids are graduating high school, but not college.
    • Jobs, especially in growth areas, will require a college education.
  • Iowa’s schools are struggling to keep up, too.
    • Lots of low-level mental work; i.e. basic skills instruction.
    • Not many kids in Iowa are taking online courses.
    • Technology expenditures are down.
  • Some Iowa schools have made some significant changes (1:1 computing  + virtual reality technology?), but we can do better…

More succinctly, the narrative of the video boils down to:

Lots of people are using lots of technology –> Our world is increasingly connected and our economy is increasingly “global” –> Therefore, our schools need to integrate technology more and focus on “higher-level” thinking skills.

(NOTE: that last part is admittedly sketchy; the “shift” that should “happen” is a little unclear)

I think there’s a huge gap in the logic. That is, the emphasis of the first part of the video is on social media usage and information abundance, but the second part jumps immediately to issues of education with a focus on outcomes. That Iowans are disproportionately not graduating college is evidence that Iowans are not keeping up with societal changes (with an emphasis on social media usage and information abundance)? Really?

I could nitpick various statements throughout the video, but my critique is more macro. I’ve written about this before, but, to reiterate, I think the gist of the argument is misguided. It’s the wrong story…

IF our schools need to “shift” (again, we’re left to assume that the “shift” means something much more technology-centric?), it is NOT because that will help us be more competitive in a global economy. As I wrote earlier, “If you make that argument, you have to believe that one of the fundamental purposes of schooling is, in fact, to prepare kids for the workforce.  That’s not at all something I believe.” Furthermore, this “global competitiveness” argument doesn’t resonate with the public, let alone educational policymakers. These days, I’m not sure anything resonates with educational policymakers beyond test scores, but what about something a little more immediate and obvious? What about learning? Gosh, we can all get behind learning, can’t we?

So, with learning as the focus, why do our schools need to “shift?”:

  1. Because public schooling exists to prepare young people to be productive and engaged citizens in a deliberative democracy, and, increasingly, civic engagement happens in “hybrid” spaces. Despite what Malcolm Gladwell would have us believe, social media has fundamentally changed the nature of political engagement. One need only look at how the Obama campaign leveraged social media in winning the 2008 presidential election and, of course, at how social media has played a major role in political uprisings in Egypt, Libya, Bahrain, etc.
  2. Because computers allow young people to learn in a more integrated way through, well, computing. Want kids to learn math? Have them take a real computer science class. As Gary Stager wrote, “If mathematics is a way of making sense of the world, computing is a way of making mathematics.” Teach kids programming, and they necessarily learn logic and argumentation and math. As they improve their logic and aptitude for argumentation, watch how their writing improves. Furthermore, logic and argumentation are the basic competencies needed for deliberation. Again, from Gary Stager, “[c]omputer science should be taught as a basic skill.”
  3. Because learning has ALWAYS been social and collaboration has ALWAYS been an important skill (or, more accurately, IMHO, a set of skills), but the modern Web exponentially amplifies the possibilities for collaboration and social learning.
  4. Because now learners don’t always have to go to schools or libraries or anywhere specific to learn. Actually, that’s always been true, but the modern Web does change our assumptions about time and space for learning.

In other words, IF we are going to rethink schooling in and for the 21st Century, it should be based on what technology affords for learning. It’s that simple.

I understand that the Did You Know? videos are intended to be conversation starters. But, I think they tell the wrong story. Instead of negativity or even fear mongering (“We’re not keeping up!”), let’s tell a more positive story about affordances and possibilities.

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