Tag Archives: learning

Are We Training Our Students to be Robots?

Excited about the possibility that he would project his creativity onto paper, I handed my 1-year-old son a crayon. He tried to eat it. I held his hand to show him how to draw, and he broke the crayon in half. I went to open the door and when I came back, he had figured out how to scribble… all over the wooden floor.

Crayons are pretty magical and versatile technologies. They can be used as educational tools — or alternatively, as projectiles. And in the process of exploring their properties, children learn to make sense of both their physical affordances and the social norms that surround them. “No, you can’t poke your brother’s eye with that crayon!” is a common refrain in my house. Learning to draw — on paper and with some sense of meaning — has a lot to do with the context, a context in which I help create, a context that is learned outside of the crayon itself.

From crayons to compasses, we’ve learned to incorporate all sorts of different tools into our lives and educational practices. Why, then, do computing and networked devices consistently stump us? Why do we imagine technology to be our educational savior, but also the demon undermining learning through distraction? Why are we so unable to see it as a tool whose value is most notably discovered situated in its context?

The arguments that Peg Tyre makes in “iPads < Teachers” are dead on. Personalized learning technologies won’t magically on their own solve our education crisis. The issues we are facing in education are social and political, reflective of our conflicting societal values. Our societal attitudes toward teachers are deeply destructive, a contemporary manifestation of historical attitudes towards women’s labor.

But rather than seeing learning as a process and valuing educators as an important part of a healthy society, we keep looking for easy ways out of our current predicament, solutions that don’t involve respecting the hard work that goes into educating our young.
In doing so, we glom onto technologies that will only exacerbate many existing issues of inequity and mistrust. What’s at stake isn’t the technology itself, but the future of learning.

An empty classroom at the Carpe Diem school in Indianapolis.
Education shouldn’t be just about reading, writing, and arithmetic. Students need to learn how to be a part of our society. And increasingly, that society is technologically mediated. As a result, excluding technology from the classroom makes little sense; it produces an unnecessary disconnect between school and contemporary life.

This forces us to consider two interwoven — and deeply political — societal goals of education: to create an informed citizenry and to develop the skills for a workforce.

With this in mind, there are different ways of interpreting the personalized learning agenda, which makes me feel simultaneously optimistic and outright terrified. If you take personalized learning to its logical positive extreme, technology will educate every student as efficiently as possible. This individual-centric agenda is very much rooted in American neoliberalism.

But what if there’s a darker story? What if we’re really training our students to be robots?

Let me go cynical for a moment. In the late 1800s, the goal of education in America was not particularly altruistic. Sure, there were reformers who imagined that a more educated populace would create an informed citizenry. But what made widespread education possible was that American business needed workers. Industrialization required a populace socialized into very particular frames of interaction and behavior. In other words, factories needed workers who could sit still.

Many of tomorrow’s workers aren’t going to be empowered creatives subscribed to the mantra of, “Do what you love!” Many will be slotted into systems of automation that are hybrid human and computer. Not in the sexy cyborg way, but in the ugly call center way.
Like today’s retail laborers who have to greet every potential customer with a smile, many humans in tomorrow’s economy will do the unrewarding tasks that are too expensive for robots to replace. We’re automating so many parts of our society that, to be employable, the majority of the workforce needs to be trained to be engaged with automated systems.

All of this begs one important question: who benefits, and who loses, from a technologically mediated world?

Education has long been held up as the solution to economic disparity (though some reports suggest that education doesn’t remedy inequity). While the rhetoric around personalized learning emphasizes the potential for addressing inequity, Tyre suggests that good teachers are key for personalized learning to work.

Not only are privileged students more likely to have great teachers, they are also more likely to have teachers who have been trained to use technology — and how to integrate it into the classroom’s pedagogy. If these technologies do indeed “enhance the teacher’s effect,” this does not bode well for low-status students, who are far less likely to have great teachers.

Technology also costs money. Increasingly, low-income schools are pouring large sums of money into new technologies in the hopes that those tools can fix the various problems that low-status students face. As a result, there’s less money for good teachers and other resources that schools need.

I wish I had a solution to our education woes, but I’ve been stumped time and again, mostly by the politics surrounding any possible intervention. Historically, education was the province of local schools making local decisions. Over the last 30 years, the federal government and corporations alike have worked to centralize education.

From textbooks to grading systems, large companies have standardized educational offerings, while making schools beholden to their design logic. This is how Texas values get baked into Minnesota classrooms. Simultaneously, over legitimate concern about the variation in students’ experiences, federal efforts have attempted to implement learning standards. They use funding as the stick for conformity, even as local politics and limited on-the-ground resources get in the way.

Personalized learning has the potential to introduce an entirely new factor into the education landscape: network effects. Even as ranking systems have compared schools to one another, we’ve never really had a system where one students’ learning opportunities truly depend on another’s. And yet, that’s core to how personalized learning works. These systems don’t evolve based on the individual, but based on what’s learned about students writ large.

Personalized learning is, somewhat ironically, far more socialist than it may first appear. You can’t “personalize” technology without building models that are deeply dependent on others. In other words, it is all about creating networks of people in a hyper-individualized world. It’s a strange hybrid of neoliberal and socialist ideologies.

An instructor works with a student in the learning center at the Carpe Diem school in Indianapolis.
Just as recommendation systems result in differentiated experiences online, creating dynamics where one person’s view of the internet radically differs from another’s, so too will personalized learning platforms.

More than anything, what personalized learning brings to the table for me is the stark reality that our society must start grappling with the ways we are both interconnected and differentiated. We are individuals and we are part of networks.

In the realm of education, we cannot and should not separate these two. By recognizing our interconnected nature, we might begin to fulfill the promises that technology can offer our students.

This post was originally published to Bright at Medium on April 7, 2015. Bright is made possible by funding from the New Venture Fund, and is supported by The Bill & Melinda Gates Foundation.

How Can We Help Miguel?

[Written for DML Central. More comments there.]

One of the hardest parts of doing fieldwork is hearing difficult, nuanced stories that break my heart. The more complicated the story, the harder it is to tell, but I feel a responsibility to at least try. Given how many educational reformists read this blog, I want to provide a portrait of some of the teens that I’ve met who are currently being failed by the system. My goal in doing so is to ask a hard question: how do we help these specific teens? Let me start with Miguel.

Miguel is 17 and in the 10th grade. His parents, both from Mexico, never finished high school and speak very little English. They are very religious and came to the US to try to provide a life for Miguel and his brother. When Miguel arrived first arrived in Nashville, he spoke very little English himself, but a local gang immediately adopted him and taught him English with heavy street slang. Given his initial friends, he was immediately labeled as a gangbanger by adults. He struggles with this label and it shapes his relationship to school and influences how adults treat him.

danah: Is school boring?
Miguel: Sometimes. Like, my algebra II, that class is like, I don’t get what she is saying. I tell her to slow down and she won’t slow down. She act like a computer. I sometimes am taking notes and she’ll be erasing them. That’s when I get mad and I tell her. She says she don’t care.
danah: Why doesn’t she care?
Miguel: Because she say I never pay attention.
danah: How does that make you feel?
Miguel: It makes me feel bad because I know that I pay attention and I try, but that’s her.

Miguel has long struggled to dissociate himself with gangs, looking up to people who are making their life work through the traditional tracks of school. “When I see people who are doing good in school I be like, oh, I want to be like that. It makes me be a better person and give me, what’s it called, feel better in my mind, my studies and everything.” But he faces insurmountable odds. As an undocumented / “illegal” (in his words) immigrant, he believes that he won’t be going to college. He’s particularly angry about this because his brother is doing quite well in school and there appears to be no hope for him to go to college either. (Note: I’m not sure about the legal barriers, but Miguel is convinced that there’s no way that he or his brother could go to college.)

In addition to feeling as though there’s no educational future for him, he struggles with issues about loyalty, feeling like he should be supporting his friends who supported him when he first arrived. But then a friend of his was killed; this scared him. “It makes me feel like I don’t want to be in that position anymore. I prefer to stay at home or going to the movies without knowing I’m going to get shot.” Fights are all around him and he regularly struggles to stay disengaged.

Miguel: I make decisions now by more of the– to feel myself better and safe, because one day we were fighting and this dude pulled out a knife and he started trying to kill someone. And since then, I was like, “I don’t like that.” And then, one day, it was before the knife, after the knife my friend got into a fight and everyone wasn’t there. This dude pull up a gun and he tried to shoot you. He shoot the gun, but we start running. So that’s why I prefer to stay bored in school and be safe than be doing something bad. Not doing nothing in school is more safe than to be doing something that is bad for me.

Miguel says that most of his friends stay involved with the gangs because “they don’t want leave out of the life. They want to stay in that life.” When the TV show Gangland did a special on Nashville, his friends were ecstatic that they were on TV, that they were now “famous.” This TV show, while showing the underbelly of gang culture, served as a recruiting technique for local gangs. Although Miguel wants out, there are pressures to stay in. He no longer goes to the lunchroom because he’s expected to sit with the gang. He works hard to come up with activities that will give him excuses for not showing up at fights. And while he’s got support outside of school – at church, through a counselor – even his teachers have written him off as a gangbanger.

Here’s a teen who wants to learn, who is painfully far behind and frustrated, who speaks broken English and is clearly lacking in many educational basics, who is unable to see a future for himself outside of doing menial labor and working hard to avoid being picked up by INS. He doesn’t see college as an option nor does he see any path to becoming legal. How can we help a teen like Miguel?

Call for Papers: Digital Media & Learning Conference

Interested in Digital Media & Learning? Well, the 2011 Digital Media & Learning Conference is looking for some interesting talks, papers, and sessions. They’ve just launched the call for proposals. (I’m on the conference committee.)

The Digital Media and Learning Conference is an annual event supported by the MacArthur Foundation and organized by the Digital Media and Learning Research Hub at University of California, Irvine. The conference is meant to be an inclusive, international and annual gathering of scholars and practitioners in the field, focused on fostering interdisciplinary and participatory dialog and linking theory, empirical study, policy, and practice.

The second conference will be held between March 3-5, 2011 at the Hilton Long Beach Conference and Meeting Center in Long Beach, California. The theme will be “Designing Learning Futures”. The Conference Chair will be Katie Salen. The conference committee includes Kimberly Austin, danah boyd, Sheryl Grant, Mark Surman, Trebor Scholz and S. Craig Watkins. Keynote presentations will be given by Alice Taylor and Muki Hansteen-Izora. We are also planning a book exhibit and technology demos.

Sociality Is Learning

This post was originally written for the DML Central Blog. If you’re interested in Digital Media and Learning, you definitely want to check this blog out.

As adults, we take social skills for granted… until we encounter someone who lacks them. Helping children develop social skills is viewed as a reasonable educational endeavor in elementary school, but by high school, educators switch to more “serious” subjects. Yet, youth aren’t done learning about the social world. Conversely, they are more driven to understand people and sociality during their tween and teen years than as small children. Perhaps its precisely their passion for learning sociality that devalues this as learning in the eyes of adults. For, if youth LIKE the subject matter, it must not be educational. Unfortunately, I fear that we are doing a disservice to youth by not acknowledging the social learning that takes place during this period. Worse, what if our efforts to curtail social interactions out of a preference for “real” learning have professional costs?

Very few of us work in professions where we are forced to focus on one anti-social task all day, every day. Even academics, a notoriously hermitic bunch, have to interact with students, fellow faculty members, and perhaps grant makers at some point. Most of us are constantly relying on and honing our social skills, developing new techniques to communicate our message, navigate office politics, manage someone’s expectations, and keep the peace. Those in service jobs face this in an acute way, having to manage irate customers and balance many people at once. Social skills are the bread and butter of professional life. So how do we learn them?

It’s easy to point to middle school as ground zero of youth drama. The rise of status hierarchies combined with budding sexuality throws all sorts of relationships upside down. Bullying, social categories, and popularity are all there. But the key to “surviving” middle school is learning how to navigate these muddy waters with an intact self-esteem. It’s not that jealousy and other social dramas disappear after middle school; it’s that they get much more nuanced as people’s skills improve. But for people to improve their skills, they must learn how to manage unpredictable and uncomfortable social situations. These aren’t skills learned in abstract; they’re learned through practice.

Over the last three decades, youth lives have gotten increasingly structured. Many youth spend little to no time in unstructured social settings, otherwise known as “hanging out.” The practice of hanging out is consistently demonized by educationally-minded folks as a waste of time. Yet, it is in that space where youth learn to navigate social situations, make sense of impression management, and develop the social skills necessary to be productive adults.

Social media has created an interesting rupture in the landscape. Youth turn to it to reclaim unstructured social encounters, to create a public space that allows them to simply hang out with their friends, peers, and cohort. The flirting, gossiping, and joking around that takes place is not proof that social media is useless, but proof that it’s extremely valuable. Without other spaces in which to gather, youth have developed their own. They want to be social, but we also need them to develop social skills. What’s fascinating is that they’re learning to do so in a mediated landscape, developing norms that will persist through adulthood. It’s not like all social encounters between adults are face-to-face; learning how to interpret a Facebook post is a great skill to have when entering an email-centric corporation.

Rather than demonizing social media or dismissing its educational value, I believe that we need to embrace the environments that youth are using to gather and help them learn to navigate the murky waters of sociality. We cannot “fix” their social worlds, but we can provide the scaffolding that they need to help learn to make sense of sticky social situations. We can serve as listeners, guides, and cheerleaders. We can be there when they’re trying to make a decision about a best way to handle a situation and play devil’s advocate when they need to work through complicated dynamics. But to be there for youth, we have to treat them with respect and value what they’re learning. We have to value the importance of learning about sociality. And we need to be able to listen as confidants, not judges.

We can continue to demonize social spaces, dismiss hanging out, and overly regulate our kids. But I believe this does them a disservice. Being a successful adult in society requires social skills. And we desperately need to give youth space to learn them. They’re committed to learning; why aren’t we supporting them in doing so?

Originally posted here.


French translation by Marie Helene Visconti:

La socialité est un apprentissage:

En tant qu’ adultes, nous considérons les compétences sociales comme données… jusqu’à ce que nous rencontrions quelqu’un qui en manque. Aider les enfants à développer des compétences sociales est vu comme un projet éducatif raisonnable en élémentaire, mais dans le secondaire, les éducateurs passent à des sujets plus sérieux. Cependant, les jeunes n’ont pas fini d’apprendre sur le monde social. Inversement, ils sont plus amenés à comprendre les gens et la socialisation pendant la préadolescence et l’adolescence que lorsqu’ils étaient petits enfants. Peut-être est-ce leur passion à apprendre la socialisation qui dévalue ceci comme apprentissage dans le regard des adultes. Parce que si les jeunes aiment le sujet, il ne doit pas être éducatif. Malheureusement, je crains que nous ne rendions pas service aux jeunes en ne reconnaissant pas l’apprentissage social qui se produit durant cette période. Pire, et si nos efforts pour réduire les interactions sociales à cause d’une préférence pour le « vrai » savoir avaient un coût professionnel.

Bien peu d’entre nous travaillent dans des professions où nous sommes forcés de nous focaliser sur une tâche solitaire toute la journée, chaque jour. Même les universitaires, un groupe d’ermites notoires, doivent interagir avec les étudiants, leurs collègues et peut-être les donateurs à certains moments. La plupart d’entre nous nous appuyons constamment sur nos compétences sociales que nous aiguisons, développant de nouvelles techniques pour communiquer notre message, naviguer dans la politique d’entreprise, gérer les attentes de quelqu’un et maintenir la paix. Ceux qui sont dans le secteur des services sont confronté à celà de façon aigüe, ayant à gérer des consommateurs irrités et à s’occuper de plusieurs personnes en même temps. Les compétences sociales sont le pain et le beurre de notre vie professionnelle. Alors comment les apprenons nous ?

Il est facile de désigner le collège comme point de départ du drame de la jeunesse. La montée des hiérarchies de statuts combinée avec la sexualité bourgeonnante met sans dessus dessous toutes sortes de relations. Le harcèlement, les catégories sociales et la popularité sont pleinement là. Mais la clé pour « survivre » au collège est d’apprendre à naviguer dans ces eaux troubles en gardant l’estime de soi intacte. Ce n’est pas que la jalousie et les autres drames sociaux disparaissent après le collège ; c’est qu’ils deviennent plus nuancés à mesure que les gens amélioent leurs compétences. Mais pour que les gens améliorent leurs compétences, ils doivent apprendre à gérer les situations sociales imprévisibles et inconfortables. Ces compétences ne sont pas apprises en théorie ; elles sont apprises par la pratique.

Pendant les trois dernières décades, la vie des jeunes s’est structurée de façon croissante. Beaucoup de jeunes passent de peu à aucun temps dans des environnements non structurés socialement, autrement dit à « traîner ». La pratique de l’activité traîner est constamment diabolisée par les personnes à l’esprit éducatif en tant que perte de temps. Cependant, c’est dans cet espace que les jeunes apprennent à naviguer dans des situations sociales, à maîtriser la gestion de l’impression et à développer les capacités sociales nécessaires pour être des adultes protecteurs.

Les média sociaux ont créé une rupture intéressante dans ce paysage. Les jeunes se tournent vers eux pour retrouver des rencontres sociales non structurées, pour créer un espace public qui les autorisent à tout simplement traîner avec leurs amis, pairs et cohorte. Le flirt, les potins et les plaisanteries qui y prennent place ne sont pas la preuve que les médias sociaux sont inutiles, mais la preuve qu’ils ont une immense valeur. Sans d’autres espaces pour se rassembler, la jeunesse a développé les siens. Ils veulent être sociaux, mais nous avons aussi besoin qu’ils développent des capacités sociales. Ce qui est fascinant, c’est qu’ils sont en train d’apprendre à le faire dans un paysage médiatique, développant des normes qui persisteront à l’âge adulte. Ce n’est pas comme si toutes les rencontres sociales entre adultes se passaient en face à face ; apprendre à interpréter un post facebook est une compétence précieuse à posséder lorsqu’on entre dans une entrepise organisée autour du mail.

Plutôt que diaboliser les média sociaux ou nier leur valeur éducative, je crois que nous devons nous engager dans l’environnement que les jeunes utilisent pour se réunir et les aider à naviguer dans les eaux troubles de la sociabilité. Nous ne pouvons pas arranger leurs mondes sociaux, mais nous pouvons fournir les échafaudages dont ils ont besoin pour apprendre à se débrouiller des situations sociales délicates. Nous pouvons servir d’auditeurs, guides et cheerleaders. Nous pouvons être là quand ils sont en train d’essayer de décider de la meilleure façon de gérer une situation et jouer l’avocat du diable lorsqu’ils ont besoin d’évoluer à travers des dynamiques complexes. Mais pour être là pour les jeunes, nous devons les traiter avec respect et valoriser ce qu’ils sont en train d’apprendre. Nous devons reconnaître l’importance d’apprendre sur la sociabilité. Et nous devons être capables d’écouter en confidents, pas en juges.

Nous pouvons continuer à diaboliser les espaces sociaux, interdire l’activité « traîner » et excessivement réguler nos enfants. Mais je crois que nous leur rendons alors l’inverse d’un service. Etre un adulte qui réussit en société demande des compétences sociales. Et nous avons un besoin crucial de donner aux jeunes l’espace pour les apprendre. Ils sont motivés pour apprendre; pourquoi ne les soutenons nous pas?