27 July 2010

Of Cognition and Memory, Technology and Cities, Learning and Schools. Part I

Byzantium. Cities became the engine of human progress
because they were places where diverse voices met...
an early technological clash point - incoherent languages,
customs, and world views.

A couple of years ago I wrote a long, strange "paper" titled Literacy (as) Tyranny. Let's start here with a long quote:
"This focus on privileging one form of literature, one form of communication, can only be maintained by one of two philosophies: A belief that human communication forms are static, or, a belief in a steady trend of human progress in human communication forms which reached its apex in 1900 in northern Europe and the United States and which must be preserved as static now.
'“Technology is frequently held to be transforming social relationships, the economy, and vast areas of public and private life,” David Buckingham says. “As Carolyn Marvin (1988) has indicated, such discourses have a long history. She shows how the introduction of electricity and telecommunications in the late-nineteenth and early-twentieth centuries was both encouraged and challenged by discourses that attributed enormous power to technology. … The telephone, for example, was celebrated for the way in which it could make business more efficient and facilitate more democratic forms of social life, yet it was also condemned for its disruption of intimate relationships and its unsettling of established social hierarchies.”[1]
"Technologies are assigned either magical powers – socially transformative, liberating, democratizing – or they are viewed as demonic threats to established social structures and hierarchies. But in both arguments there is a strong sense of technological determinism. “[T]echnology is seen to emerge from a neutral process of scientific research and development, rather than from the interplay of complex social, economic, and political forces,” Buckingham adds. “Technology is then seen to have effects—to bring about social and psychological changes— irrespective of the ways in which it is used, and of the social contexts and processes into which it enters.”[2]
"Technology, however, rarely arrives without a societal need. The ancient Greeks and Romans both had steam engines, but without a societal function, these essential tools of the industrial revolution were simply toys. The French Second Empire had fax machines but no interest in fax machines. The idea vanished for over a century. Would Gutenberg’s typesetting system have been such the grand success it was without the concurrent rise of the Reformation? Would railroads have been developed prior to the need to transport coal?
"So technology succeeds because it fills an apparent cultural void. And culture responds to the technology by transforming around the new technology. Various genres of writing grow, and the percentage of literate citizens grows, and a religion based on written text develops – then – movable type appears to support those developments – then – using this new technology, new genres of writing grow and literacy expands and changes. Fiction, supported by the printed text in ways poetry – with its oral tradition – is not, outstrips the older form. People learn to write novels and they learn to read novels. The success of novels produces other forms of writing – the beginnings of journalism. These new forms of writing and reading create the need for machine made paper, rotary presses, the linotype machine. And as these new forms of writing – in this case journalism in particular – grow, the need develops for rapid communications, and the telegraph, telephone, and radio are developed, along with even newer forms of representation, photographs and films.
"At each step education tends to lag behind, teaching the prior technologies and prior communication forms."
Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) change, and these changes change cognition - both individual and community. Once you saw cave paintings, story telling often needed more than words. Once you saw a photograph, paintings didn't look quite so real [3]. Once you watched a newreel, you wanted a different level of proof before fully believing an event occurred. Once you saw live television coverage - think of the Kennedy Assassination and especially the murder of Lee Harvey Oswald - your concept of transmitted reality shifted.

But there is much more. These changes, in turn, change the ways in which we communicate, again, both as individuals and as a community, and change the way we remember, including our collective memories. Those changes in cognition and memory alter information and communication norms in a way which demands new technologies...

Yes, let's begin there. It is not a straight path, of course, and not a stairway. Its more like something out of Mailer's The Naked and the Dead, we're going round and round this rocky mountain, with plateaus and cliffs and lots of places to fall.

Edison film of the Boer War

But along the way things change. This began with the invention of technology number one: language, and technology number two: art. It accelerated when humans first broke tribal boundaries and began to occupy trading cities, where differing technologies (types of languages, types of art, and thus, types of world views) met and collided. There, in those cities, the need for new types of boundary crossing ICTs sped the circle up further. And humans moved through all kinds of technologies, from memorized Greek drama to Egyptian architecture and hieroglyphics to Assyrian seals and Hebraic scrolls, to Opera and Gutenberg's mass printed books. Each technology altering us as we used it.

In 19th and 20th century terms, you can't have John Dos Passos[4] without the cheap newspaper and the phonograph. You can't have Jack Kerouacwithout Dos Passos. But then Kerouac demonstrates (literally) the limits of the page, which is also demonstrated by television and the teleprompter, which then makes the Word Processor essential, which...

And in each of these cycles our entire way of visualizing life, the universe, our experiences, and our memories shift. Did Napoleonic War vets remember battles as newsreels? as paintings? as poetry?

Now, lets give "our field" the benefit of the doubt. Let's say that lots of schools are trying to get themselves current. People are going to Google Teacher Academies and iPad Academies and Intel Academies and EduCons and all, but these are catch up. We know they're catch up because they are almost always tied tightly to the present through their corporate sponsors. So, even if the tech is current, the cognition we're imagining is what led to that tech... in other words, we're back in the 1960s with Tom Wolfeand the modern origins of blogging, and the 1990s and the emergence of AIM.

Today, of course, our technology allows everyone to live in big complex cities. We can all meet globally. We are all impacted by the vast amount of information pouring in. Wherever we are we have more data coming at us than if we were standing in the middle of Times Square. And that is forcing a rapid change in cognition, communication, and memory.

Not everyone joins in, of course. There are people in New York who still speak Ukrainian. There are Americans who only watch FoxNews. There are Brits who hide away with The Mirror. None of this is new. American Mormons walked a thousand miles to hide out with their own kind in the 1840s. English Calvinists fled the Netherlands and religious pluralism in the 1620s. At every technological and cognitive turn there have been dissenters, and yet, things keep changing anyway.

And they will continue to change. We may not know the direction, but we know change will happen.

So, what would it look like if we're enabling the next instead of the present? Even concretely. So, lets face it, whatever I or anyone else says, tablets, iPads, laptops are transitional technologies. What happens to cognition, and to collective memory, when every student at every age has their phone in their hand linking them universally and able to connect both intimately and via projection? To look through augmented reality. To ask any question of anyone? These are actually present, if not yet ubiquitous, technologies. As they appear, and cognition changes, in, oh, 3 years, what do we, as educators do?

What happens to our teaching? Our spaces? Our curriculum? Do we really teach state history anymore? How many languages do we use and translate? Forget the "no teaching wall [pdf]," is there even a "teaching floor" - and what does that mean? Obviously age-based grades vanish... subjects? yeah, those too. But we're still not "there." The very notions of the "student" and the "teacher" are obviously altered. As information becomes more free, expertise becomes more distributed [5][pdf, and yes, trustable] and the controls of grade-level-expectations, standardized tests, and text-books become laughably irrelevant. Does our fixed time schedule - hours, periods, days, semesters - survive?

Is it possible to imagine a school which prepares students for their future? Which operates with, and builds skills for, the flexibility which humans require if they are to succeed when the world changes?

Can we imagine that? Can we train for it? Can we begin to implement it?

I'm asking because we need to do better. I was horrified this past weekend when I watched a University of Phoenix advertisement. OK, yeah, but... after promising this entire new concept of education, the ad ends with a Phoenix graduate teaching a primary school class that is absolutely traditional.

And talking about "how the world works now" is simply not enough. Because when our kids graduate, the world won't work that way anymore.

- Ira Socol

Comments are desperately sought, Part II (and further) depends on the conversation...

[1] Buckingham, D. (2008) Introducing Identity. In Youth, Identity, and Digital Media. MacArthur Foundation paper. p. 11
Buckingham, D. (2008) Introducing Identity. In Youth, Identity, and Digital Media. MacArthur Foundation paper. p. 12
[3] See Jonathan Crary (1992) Techniques of the Observer: On Vision and Modernity in the 19th Century
[4] "Whereasthe Congressoftheunitedstates byaconcurrentresolutionadoptedon the4thdayofmarch last-authorizedthe Secretaryofwar to cause to be brought to theunitedstatesthe body of an American whowasamemberoftheAmericanexpeditionaryforceineuropewholosthis lifeduringtheworldwarandwhoseidentityhasnot beenestablished for burial inthememorialamphitheatreofthe nationalcemeteryatarlingtonvirginia

"In the tarpaper morgue at Chalons-sur-Marne in the reek of chloride of lime and the dead, they picked out the pine box that held all that was left of

"enie menie minie moe plenty of other pine boxes stacked up there containing what they’d scraped up of Richard Roe

"and other person or persons unknown. Only one can go. How did they pick John Doe? . . .

"how can you tell a guy’s a hundredpercent when all you’ve got’s a gunnysack full of bones, bronze buttons stamped with the screaming eagle and a pair of roll puttees?

". . . and the gagging chloride and the puky dirtstench of the yearold dead . . ."

[5] See James Paul Gee (2007) What Video Games Have to Teach Us About Learning and Literacy


Jerrid Kruse said...

As I read this, I know that what you say is "correct". Our cultures, including our cognition, change. This change is often the result of new technologies. New technologies that catch on are usually the result of some perceived need. Then, the fulfillment of the perceived need as well as the side effects of the technology result in a dramatically different way to look at the world. Individuals change, societies change.

You are also correct in saying the world our students graduate into will be different than our current world and we cannot predict it. Nor should we try.

So we are left with a paradox. We have today's technology with which to work. We have tomorrow's technology for which students must be prepared. Perhaps our focus ought not fall onto the technology, but the thinking. We know cognitive requirements for navigating a future world (as dictated by our technology) will require new thinking. If we focus on helping students become flexible thinkers, they are likely to be better prepared for whatever comes there way.

How do we create flexible thinkers? Some ideas off the top of my head include: explicitly drawing students attention to metacognitive strategies by asking students questions like "how was your thinking different in this task than that task?", encouraging students to consider and even defend multiple points of view, encouraging students to represent info in multiple representations and then reflecting on the pros and cons of each representation....

In addition to focusing on flexibility in thinking, I would like to raise a question:

To what extent should we just accept societal change? What value might there be in teachers working to conserve particular ways of thinking? New is not always better. We are constantly told how our students read more today than ever before, just not books. While this is fine news, what happens to individual's ability to follow a book length argument if they never read books(or listen to them).

As a side note, instrumental & deterministic views of technology are both problematic. Yes, technological effects are highly dependent on how they are used (instrumentalism), but technologies are designed to be used in particular ways and therefore have bias that lead to certain effects (determinism). A balance between these two ideas must be maintained. To subscribe to one view exclusively is dangerous as it either downplays the power of the technology itself or the power of human decisions.

I know this response is kinda sketchy. It is late, but hopefully it leads to more discussion. Some of these ideas are still things I am wrestling with myself. Thanks for the great post.

Dan McGuire said...
This comment has been removed by the author.
Dan McGuire said...

There are far too many people, I think, who don't believe that "Information and Communication Technologies (ICTs) change, and these changes change cognition - both individual and community." Dan Willingham doesn't believe it, and he is leading the thinking of those who read the major publication of the AFT. It doesn't serve his purpose to act as if ICT changes cognition, so he doesn't, and he actually pooh-poohs your assertion. More on that later.

So, it's up to writers and other creative artists to define the new cognitive landscape just as they've done since the days of painting on the walls of caves.

200 years ago, in his Preface to the Lyrical Ballads, Wordsworth was pre-echoing, foreshadowing, your blog when he said - "It has therefore appeared to me, that to endeavour to produce or enlarge this capability (he's talking about the duty of a writer) is one of the best services in which, at any period, a Writer can be engaged; but this service, excellent at all times, is especially so at the present day. For a multitude of causes, unknown to former times, are now acting with a combined force to blunt the discriminating powers of the mind, and, unfitting it for all voluntary exertion, to reduce it to a state of almost savage torpor. The most effective of these causes are the great national events which are daily taking place, and the increasing accumulation of men in cities, where the uniformity of their occupations produces a craving for extraordinary incident, which the rapid communication of intelligence hourly gratifies. to this tendency of life and manners the literature and theatrical exhibitions of the country have conformed themselves.

So, finish that next book, sell the rights to "The Drool Room" to Clint Eastwood or the guy who did Hoeg's book, and I'll write a Haiku or two and post them on Twitpics.

I'll make a ruckus at my workshop next week about using Moodle for science and writing in an elementary classroom and try not to get myself fired in the process, and then in early September I'll ring my little bell and call the students to a circle to talk about what we should do as a group for the coming year, and then I'll read them a story.

Jerrid Kruse said...

Dan, don't sell willingham too short. What he is talking about is biology. While we say our brains get "wired differently" due to technology, those wires are still biologically the same. Willingham is making a case against educational fads. Even with new technologies more concrete is better than more abstract: video is easier to make sense of than text, however video is not always the best medium. Willingham argues we should match our medium to our content rather than choose a medium based on preference. Apply that to digital tech: don't use tech for tech sake. An important point.

Pam said...

The capacity of each generation to take in “new” and process “new” creates a context for each succeeding generation to scaffold not just evolved knowledge, but new ways of cognitively perceiving, processing, and understanding. It strikes me that the flow of time represents developmental learning stages of humanity in the same way Piaget’s stages of development represent shifts in human cognition. As I read your blog, I am struck by some thoughts and questions:

1) cognitive development of the human mind (a collective of all minds not just one) is not linear and its knowledge is not necessarily cumulative. As civilizations ebb and flow the collective mind prunes what is no longer needed; losing some memories but continuing to gain in complexity as new knowledge leads to discoveries that mint growth of our collective mind. However, significant upheavals in “great” civilizations have resulted in the loss of knowledge and skills of the collective mind. I hear people today comment, “What if we have a pandemic and technology fails- who is going to know how to do _? You’ll need your books then, not that computer.” The Book of Eli, a recent movie, showcases the fear of loss of print text in the post- apocalyptic world; using, of course, high-tech film technologies to create that fear within us. Could it be that our resistance to making the shift to “new” in the traditions of schooling reflects mostly our fear (an emotional, not cognitive response) of losing the “held dear” knowledge bank we have recorded so diligently and reproduced in tangible print?

2) cognitive resistance to the “new” that we know today and the “new” yet to be invented tomorrow represents our collective human mind’s urge to minimize uncertainty in the workplace, our schools, and communities (See Michel and Wharam- Bullish on Uncertainty.) Resistance to maximizing uncertainty in our schools (somewhat of an oxymoronic action from a cognitive point of view) represents a deep-seated drive of humans; one so ingrained that it takes tremendous will to break. We use all the linear, temporal, and concrete tools at our disposal to sustain what is comfortable, predictable, and ordered in our world. The development, application, and integration of new technologies into our school community challenges the certainties we hold dear about the right way to educate. If we view the viability of future generations as contingent upon our willingness to rapidly adapt and evolve our learning environments to “new," how do we overcome our resistance to change? What do we need to do to become comfortable with creating and working in an environment of uncertainty? To create and scaffold learning that challenges every rule of schooling to which we adhere today?

I realized as I processed this piece, I tend to go back to great thinkers from the past. We humans “know” that it is from our tolerance for ambiguity, our adaptability to “new,” and the intersection of disciplines and diverse thought that our creative genius comes – evident in the work of philosophers, scientists, artists, composers, and writers who span generations. We hold our icons up as exemplars for young people- Aristotle, DaVinci, Newton, Curie, Einstein, King. However, it is not the “know” that holds us back from responding to the hyper-changes swirling around us in this century. It’s our collective emotional response to uncertainty and desire for safety that leads us to hold on to the past. How do we acknowledge and accept as a culture that our urge to rationalize away the need to change schooling is about our own fears: loss of our roles, loss of control over and through “print,” loss of the boxes we call schools, loss of individualism, loss of our sense of security in that which we can predict?

I have no doubt that the emotion of the collective human mind holds sway over the cognitive mind. My greatest fear is that we collectively lack the will to overcome our emotional fear of changes essential to supporting the next generation of learners. We need to keep working on that.

Tomaz Lasic said...

Hi Ira

Insightful as always, thank you.

The more I think about it seems we're talking about freedom. Freedom to learn, act and through all this keep teaching but 'becoming', ontologically, in an increasing multiplicity of ways.

On the (frustratingly) whole, edu field may be (well, is!) in a permanent catch-up mode when it comes to uptake of tech and approaches compared to business where innovation literally translates to survival.

But because of the increasingly protean nature and form of digital technology, we are freer than ever to use it in ways unthought of, challenge, re-purpose things in ways that are meaningful to us and those we teach and work with. We (as in edu field) may lag on the uptake of tech but we are increasingly free to do some pretty 'amazing' (compared to 500 or even 5 years ago) with only a handful of such tools.

Aside, I get really annoyed by the 'latest-and-shiniest' brigade when they start panning Moodle for example (yes, I do work for Moodle for those who read this and don't know it, hence my bias) for being 'not open enough', almost 'old school' with 'not enough features' and 'just an institutional instrument'. Bollocks!!! One can be incredibly creative and innovative with just a couple of standard tools Moodle can offer. OK, enough Moodle, how about simple Skype? Google Docs? You know the 'boring' staple of millions and millions…

But here comes the biggest catch - the 'freedom' part.

Blame that French philosopher who observed that the first victim of freedom to think and act differently to what has been familiar, thought and done before is - oneself (somewhat where Pam was heading in her excellent reply).

Freedom is a scary proposition for so many actors in systems like education, so 'grooved' (on the whole) in its mechanistic, deterministic, established 'dosages' of freedom (yes, as you've said before "schools are doing exactly the job they are/were supposed to do"). And overcoming the fear of freedom (not fear of tech) by knowing how wonderful, empowering AND destructive it can be is something I frankly never heard staff talk about (unlike the kids!).

You are what you learn, you learn what you are.

Sorry for the off-the-cuff ramble, it's getting late here Down Under. I do hope a conversation develops and that we see Parts 2, 3 … ?

Take care