26 October 2009

Twitter as [Teacher] Liberation Technology

based on my recent presentation at the Comparative and International Education Society (CIES) 2009 Midwest Conference at Kent State University...

If, as Foucault says, power is “neither given, nor exchanged, nor recovered, but rather exercised, and that it only exists in action" (Kelly 1994), then the powerlessness of many teachers in relation to their own professional development may be seen as a consequence of inaction – or more specifically – of the lack of a conceptual space which allows them freedom to act.

Foucault saw that the important thing to watch were the moves people make in what I call the "transaction space" between them (with all due thanks to Fendler 2010 for getting me to see this). But I think Gramsci helps me by letting me see the forces which "shape" that space - creating the rules of the game.

Teachers, throughout the world, work in fairly to completely isolated circumstances. Distance between schools and between schools and teacher-training universities, the required time to connect with other teachers or mentors, the issue of getting needed support/scaffolding ‘as needed,’ all create major impediments to ongoing and effective teacher training. And these problems create issues of teacher persistence, retention, and improvement throughout developing nations (Leach, Ahmed, Makalima, and Power 2005), and, without a doubt, in many developed nations as well.

The isolated teacher, locked in his/her classroom, limited to peer interaction during ever briefer lunch periods in even the largest schools (limited by lack of other teachers in smaller schools), finds themselves unable to find support for their professional development. The structure of their time, and the structure of their culture and national education system, limits the information flow - and thus the confidence experience - needed to challenge and doubt the apparent rules.

Information and Communication

Across all of our societies systems of information and communication can either be coercive or liberating. In education, and in teacher education, the systems used have tended toward the coercive: taught degrees with grades based in specific forms for content and delivery; discourse controlled by class-time and semester time schedules as well as by instructor and peer pressure; an emphasis in teacher preparation on classroom management strategies; administratively designed on-going professional development often based in political narratives; nationally-determined standards distributed as directives. All of these structures coerce certain behaviors from teachers and limit their opportunities to control the pedagogy within their own classrooms.

Since I joined Twitter in 2007 I have been participating in and observing a global network of teachers on the “real time” social networking system Twitter. Twitter is referred to as “real time” because “Tweets” appear in a continuous timed stream, and it is obviously a “social networking” system in that it tends to bring together affinity groups on-line. But unlike systems such as Facebook it does not require mutual “friending” to establish contact. Unless a user locks down his or her account, anyone can follow what that user is saying. Unlike professional social sites like Linked-In, no “credentials” need be established. But Twitter does allow groups to form – both permanently through mutual “follows” and temporarily through “hash tags” which connect a specific conversation. There is clearly a powerful attraction system here, as those who stick with Twitter long enough to discover their affinity groups are drawn into an ever widening orbit of global contact.

What I have watched - in action - is teachers from many nations now given the ability to form their own liberated learning network, sharing resources, ideas, frustrations, problems, research, even lesson plans without official filters, without limits constructed by others. And thus what I have watched is teachers from around the world finding that they are able to change the rules, to make different "plays," within the transaction space which defines their teaching practice.

Meeting, observing, even psychologically supported by this new affinity group, they have broken free from a thousand imagined and understood constraints, and are now able to utilize their own power.

Gramsci, Foucault, and Power Theory

In Gramscian terms, the power of SMS-length social networking is allowing strengthened bonds in the resistance to the status quo, it is allowing power within the structure of education to be utilized and focused in new ways. I am building here on the research in teacher support in sub-Saharan Africa produced by the DEEP Project at the Open University (UK), and a long conversation with the OU's Tom Power in the dining hall at Trinity College at CAL'07. There project gave teachers social networking tools (through SMS) and saw dramatic improvements in teachers' self-perceptions -and in their persistence and retention, even in completely isolated environments such as Western Cape Province. Now, an even free-er form of social networking, Twitter, with its minimal entry requirements and phone-based capabilities, is offering teachers a path to individual power through global organizing which provides not just knowledge but emotional and tactical support in the pursuit of effective educational change (Gramsci 1971, Shirky 2008, Open University 2005).

Foucault, in Chapter 2 of The Order of Things, talked about the powerful differences in similarities. "Convenience" - the proximity similarity, is often what binds teachers together. They share a workplace or an employer. Of course, if all in a group share the same constraints on action, those constraints tend to become invisible - they come "naturalized." But another form of Foucauldian similarity is "emulation." In emulation the similarity builds because we recognize a reflection. On Twitter, I will argue, we are freed from convenience similarity, and free to search for reflections which appear - in some way - familiar. We are free to find emulations. Teachers, in this case, with similar frustrations with the game as it is played. And that leads us to the possibility of Foucault's other two similarities: Analogy, our ability to recognize similar functions even if the form differs (a steering wheel, a horse's reins), and sympathy, the connection based on how we are affected by actions.

These shifts bring us back to Gramsci. Gramsci was not a traditional Marxist who sees power as one-directional and history as inevitable. Gramsci understood that power exists, and we either exercise it or not. In Peter Høeg's novel of inclusive education Borderliners one character describes a fantasy of potential power made real. He imagines a whole classroom of primary pupils working the tiny blades out of their pencil sharpeners and ganging up to kill the teacher through a thousand small cuts. Gruesome, yes, but a perfect demonstration of the powers which typically lie dormant in schools.

As I have watched Twitter (you can see a few representative Tweets in the PowerPoint above), I have watched this shift from potential to exercised power as teachers connect and free themselves from the "rules of the game" in their personal educational transaction spaces. With newly available observations of actions which have not been experienced before, which have bypassed the systems in which they operate, they are liberated to see things in new ways, to understand things in broader ways, and, essentially, to act in ways previously unforeseen.

It is powerful stuff. And it may indeed portend some radical changes in how education occurs, and how it is controlled.

- Ira Socol

Fendler, L. (2010) Michel Foucault. Continuum.

Foucault, M. (1994). The Order of Things: An Archaeology of the Human Sciences. Vintage.

Gramsci, A. (1971). Selections from the Prison Notebooks. International Publishers.

Kelly, M. (ed) (1994). Critique and Power: Recasting the Foucault / Habermas Debate (Studies in Contemporary German Social Thought). MIT Press.

Leach, J., Ahmed, A., Makalima, S., and Power, T. (2005). DEEP Impact: An Investigation of the Use of Information and Communication Technologies for Teacher Education in the Global South. Open University.

Shirky, C. (2008). Here Comes Everybody: The Power of Organizing Without Organizations. Penguin.

14 October 2009

Are You Dumber Than A First Grader?

Are you dumber than a first grader? This woman is

or, at least, she and her school board claim to be.

No, I'm sorry, after meeting Tuesday night the board and administration of Delaware's Christina School District decided that they were capable of considering the actions, motivations, and needs of five and six-year-old children - it is just anyone age seven-and-up that Dr. Marcia V. Lyles and crew can not figure out how to handle.

The Christina School District is the latest poster child for the need to wipe the entire idea of "Zero Tolerance" from our school vocabulary. They became this when they "zero tolerated" a first grader who had an awful lapse in judgment and brought an eating utensil to school to eat lunch with. Yes, zero tolerance policies make it easy on third-rate administrators like Lyles, and failed policy makers like the Christina board. They don't have to think, they don't have to consider, they don't have to make decisions or defend those decisions. Hell, with policies like this they don't even have to actually talk to children.

A Twitter friend wrote this morning, trying to consider why school board's adopt these kinds of policies, "We don't want to be discriminatory or irrational. Therefore, rules are enforced to promote equality." And while I understand the desire to not be discriminatory, or to be seen as discriminatory ("you only suspend black kids"), I struggle with the notion of promoting equality.

Does equal treatment really promote equality?

A few years ago, on TV-Land, I watched the pilot episode of The Andy Griffith Show. This was actually an episode of Danny Thomas's sitcom Make Room for Daddy, and in this "spinoff pilot" Danny and New York family are driving south to Florida when they are stopped for speeding in Mayberry (ah, life before interstates). Danny gets all huffy and doesn't want to pay the fine. He gets especially outraged when Andy fines him $100 after fining another motorist $5 for doing the same thing. "That's not fair!" Danny thunders.

And Andy tells him that $5 is a great deal of money to the man he fined $5. But $5 means nothing to Danny. And so it would not be fair if the fines were equal.

Just as today, one speeding ticket, with various state surcharges and the resulting rise in car insurance premiums can literally end up destroying a poor person's life (loss of ability to feed family that week, loss of ability to register car, thus loss of job), while the rich state legislators who determine these fines pay the charge without a care in the world.

Equal treatment resulting in gross inequality.

I'm sorry, if you can not see that. If you can not judge how best to apply the law - or the rules - you have no business being a police officer, a judge, a teacher, a principal/headmaster/headteacher, a school superintendent, or a school board member.

Consider "zero tolerance" in your world. Everyone who jaywalks is ticketed. You run into the street chasing your toddler - get a ticket. Everyone who ever exceeds the speed limit gets a ticket. You go 36 mph in a 35 mph zone on your way to the Emergency Room and you pay a $100 fine. Everyone who makes a mistake at work gets laid off for 45 days (the Christina Schools' policy re: students). Sorry you forgot to file that report correctly. You can't pay the mortgage this month. Never a mitigating circumstance. Never a consideration for humanity. Never room for an honest mistake. Seems like a very unpleasant world to live in.

But yes, it would make life easier for the likes of Dr. Lyles.

Well, I've been a police officer and I teach, and I have never had "zero tolerance" policies. Everyone you run across represents a different situation and a different set of human conditions. To treat all the same - in every situation - is both gross injustice and the height of inequality.

And we simply can not let people that lazy, or - to express my honest opinion - that stupid, be in charge of laws, school rules, school assignments, etc.

In my classes I will often get an email like this: "I'm sorry I didn't get the assignment in on time, I had a family emergency and had to drive to Ohio over the weekend and..." A "zero tolerance" person would give them an F for the assignment. I say instead, "I hope everything is all right. Please get it to me when you can." And then I add, because these students are now or will be teachers, "Please do the same for your own students."

Because we are humans. And humans are supposed to be tolerant.

- Ira Socol

09 October 2009

SpaceFish and the Primary Crowdsource

What place does social media have in the classroom?

What place does a teacher saying, "I don't know" have in the classroom?

What place does a teacher suggesting that we "ask the mob" to answer that unanswered question have in the classroom?

Welcome to "The SpaceFish Project"

Let's start here - with this Tweet from a class Twitter account at Colinton Primary School in Edinburgh, Scotland: "What would happen if you took a fish into space, would it float out of the water? Please help us with the answer because we don't know! (JG)6:53 AM Oct 8th from web" The teacher had allowed the children to crowdsource the issue. Put it "out there." See what they could discover.

It was quickly re-tweeted by someone in my network: "@tombarrett What would happen if you took a fish into space, would it float out of the water? Do you know of anyone that can help? (FB)7:12 AM Oct 8th from web in reply to tombarrett" and I and others attempted answers (mostly incorrect). But then I, intrigued, used a combination of my social networks to help find an answer.

I have an old friend who is a director at the New York Hall of Science. And we've worked on a few things together, and I've gotten to sort of know some of his staff - some of whom maintain the museum's public place on Twitter. So I re-sent this Tweet, linking it specifically to @nysci.

Very quickly we had answers, and links to the behavior of water (if not specifically fish) in zero gravity and in vacuums.

And soon we had the possibility of American scientists dropping - via web-video technology - into a tiny Scottish primary school to talk to the students about science and space.

Now, where would these students have been in the old days? Where would they have been if the teacher had dismissed this as "a silly question," or had attempted to answer it based on our typically limited knowledge of non-terrestrial sciences? Where would they have been if the teacher had been afraid to break through the walls of her classroom, and offer her students access to this century's knowledge web?

Well, they probably wouldn't be incredibly excited about science, space, or coming to school next week.

People ask me all the time if I'm "kidding" about wanting social networking tools in primary grades, and 1:1 computing, and mobile technologies. They simply can not imagine the value. In their primary classrooms the teachers talked, the kids listened, and this is what they know of education.

But at Colinton Primary School they have a better idea. And their kids are better off for it. What's going on in your kids' school?

- Ira Socol

08 October 2009

Side Effects

Derrion Albert was killed by Arne Duncan's Chicago School Reform Plan, Renaissance 2010.

I'm not saying Duncan murdered anyone. I'm not Rush Limbaugh. But I am saying that Albert was a victim of the side effects of Renaissance 2010 and Duncan's theories of urban education reform, just as a person who dies during a clinical drug trial has been killed by that drug.

Derrion Albert went to school in an a violent, gang-ridden neighborhood. And Derrion Albert went to a school which had been merged with another school after his neighborhood school had been closed because it was "failing" and reconstructed as a "magnet academy." This was our current Secretary of Education's "cure" for Chicago's Public Schools when he was in charge there. Thus Derrion, like tens of thousands of Chicago students, had to cross neighborhood lines and gang turf areas to get to and from school each day. He also had to attend a school filled with these kinds of turf battles. And like far too many of Chicago's students (it is now a national issue), he died as a result.

Derrion Albert was killed by Arne Duncan's Chicago School Reform Plan, Renaissance 2010.

The Schools Matter blog deals with all this in detail, and let's be clear that Duncan - just like a pharmaceutical corporation caught in the same situation - calls this charge "ridiculous," but facts are stubborn things, and educational leaders must stop their constant promotion of faux "gold standard" "medical model" school research unless they are willing to take on the attendant responsibility.

Social Science research rarely worries about side effects. And educational reforms never seem to come with those package warnings that drugs have, and this is why the entire research model hustled by the U.S. Department of Education and American Educational Research Association is dangerous, unethical, and nonsensical.

Oh sure, we understand that model - so sadly assembled in the book Scientific Research in Education - is fraudulent in every way. You can't mimic medical research without a double-blind procedure system - which is impossible in schools. But beyond that, you simply can not claim to be conducting scientific research on anything unless you are willing to consider the spectrum of results.

So, when Arne Duncan closed "failing" high schools in poor neighborhoods, he had an ethical responsibility - as a leader, as a researcher, as a human, to try to minimize the potential side-effect harm of his "cure." Merging neighborhood schools is tough everywhere, it is especially tough when you are crossing gang boundaries in a violent urban neighborhood. So, just as the maker of a new, say, flu vaccine, is ethically obligated to try to make sure he/she doesn't accidentally kill a bunch of people while saving others, so Arne Duncan was obligated to consider the risks, publish the risks, and mitigate the risks of his plan to "save" Chicago's high schools.

So, was this Duncan's Vioxx moment or his Tuskegee moment? Was he arrogant, careless, and pursuing personal gain at the expense of being cautious with children's lives or, was this a calculated opportunity to test his theories on the powerless?

"Community-based schools are what everybody strives for in the United States and they are disappearing, and that’s a sad thing," said someone in rural West Virginia in a New York Times article about school consolidation there. '"You have a trail of blood and tears ever since they launched (Renaissance 2010)," said Tio Hardiman, director of the anti-violence organization CeaseFire Illinois. "There's a history of violence associated with moving kids from one area to another,"' says the School Matters blog. In other words, the dangers are known, and a responsible person does not conduct a mass experiment like this without considering, publishing, and attempting to mitigate the risks/dangers.

Did he rush forward because of an arrogant belief in his own science? Or his desperation for personal political capital? Or did he simply think these poor Black kids were the ones to experiment on?

We probably won't ever know. I didn't hear Eric Holder suggest an investigation of his fellow cabinet member yesterday in Chicago.

But we do know that this is a constant disaster in educational research - and in educational practice. We "academize" kindergarten and first grade and kids can't do basic science any more. We devote extra hours to reading instruction and kids get fat. We tighten standards and more kids must be labeled disabled. We drill certain reading sub-skills and teach young kids to hate books. We insist on college prep curriculum and make a huge percentage of kids miserable. We adopt zero tolerance policies and throw the kids who need school the most out on the street.

So, if Arne Duncan's Renaissance 2010 was "gold standard" "medical model" research his plan would have been "pulled off the shelves" a year ago due to disastrous side effects. There'd be Congressional investigations and massive lawsuits. But it hasn't been. Which proves the point:

"Scientific Research in Education" is a lie. "Evidence-based Practice" is always based on insufficient evidence. And we need a new research paradigm to help us move forward and to protect our children.

Derrion Albert was killed by Arne Duncan's Chicago School Reform Plan, Renaissance 2010. And we must insist that "reformers" find ways to do less damage in the future.

- Ira Socol

05 October 2009

The Bookburners

Last week was "Banned Books Week" - a celebration of the nonsense of censorship. But unfortunately it is Banned Books Year is most schools most of the time, as administrators, teachers, even some librarians seek to block access to information on a daily basis.

Last week a Twitter Pal told me, "You should have seen our district's librarians cheering because they got Wikipedia blocked." To which I responded, "You should have walked into each library, grabbed all those World Books and Britannicas, and set fire to them in the parking lot. Same thing."

Yes, it is the same thing.

Too many people thing book burning is about vandalism and destruction, as if what is important about a book is its physical form. But despite the emotional ties to the feel of paper and the smell of ink, that is not what books are about. Books are about the ideas, the words, the rhythms contained within. And book burning is about censoring those ideas, words, and rhythms. Hitler really didn't expect the books he burned to vanish from the earth, he wanted to make sure those under his control did not read them. This is why web filtering is book burning. The goal is to use your power to prevent those you control from accessing information.

Throughout history people have rationalised this kind of violence. Oppressors have often claimed to be "protecting" people from dangerous ideas and misinformation, or from "inappropriate" information (in 2000 the American Family Association objected to the Holland, MI public library allowing patrons to see the Catholic Information Center's website because it might "confuse" people). "Wrong" translations of The Bible have been banned or burned, so have books from Ulysses to The Origin Of Species. I'm quite sure there were more than a few British bureaucrats who'd have liked to burn Common Sense in 1775-1776.

Traveling with the Book People, a project inspired by Fahrenheit 451.

But ideas are stubborn things, and humans like to preserve our stories. Fahrenheit 451's Book People are a classic (fictional) example of this. We should not burn, nor should we filter. Our responsibility as educators - if we are educators and not enforcers - is to help frame difficult information, to present it within context, to discuss, to challenge. Censorship, book burning, filtering - this is the stuff of tyrants who cannot defend their own points of view if challenged.

So please - let's follow up "Banned Books Week" with "Banned Sites Year" - a commitment to replacing filtering with education and intelligent conversation. A year of committing to working with our students to help them figure out for themselves the value of the information in front of them.

Stop your book burning, and start teaching instead.

- Ira Socol

Teaching on Controversial Issues by Alan Shapiro
Teaching Critical Thinking by Alan Shapiro
Bud-the-Teacher's response to site blocking requests.

03 October 2009

Transactional Disability Part II - The Personal

Today was a busy day on the Michigan State University campus. The "biggest" event was a football game (the American padded variety of football, where the ball is in play 13 minutes total) between Michigan State - whose most famous moment on "the gridiron" remains a 10-10 draw in 1966 - and the University of Michigan - a team best known for its rule and contract-breaking head coach.

We can laugh, but it is important to note that in a state so bankrupt it cannot afford to keep state offices open, and in a state with the highest public university tuitions on the planet, these two teams have spent more than a billion dollars in facilities upgrades these past few years. A billion dollars, or, eight times the amount needed to save promised "Promise" scholarships for Michigan university students.

So we know where our priorities are.

The big event for me was something different. I had signed up for a one-day Continental Philosophy Workshop - Technology, Time, and the Political: Modernity and Memory from Heidegger to Stiegler. A workshop important to both my Critical Studies Reading Group and to my dissertation topic.

But today I was too disabled to attend the conference, though I drove 90 miles to campus for it (and, of course, 90 miles back).

Now, my physical condition has not changed since I was on campus on Thursday, but the "transaction space" had changed dramatically.

I arrived well in advance of the Conference's start time having been told, "Please use the Kellogg Center parking structure on Harrison and mention to the attendant that you attend the MSU philosophy workshop." But at the parking structure a hotel manager named Geoff Parkerson stopped me, telling me there was no space left for those attending the conference. He was letting cars in, but apparently a disabled grad student has no pull equal to guys wearing MSU football jerseys and driving Cadillac Escalades. Parking was in very short supply because MSU had turned over a large number of spaces to "tailgating" - drunk folks shouted down from their party tents as I sat there in my car, phoning both the Kellogg Center staff and the campus police, seeking a place that I could park and walk from.

Here's where this becomes a disability issue, and perhaps, an actual "federal case" (we'll see):

If I could walk "normally" I could have easily parked a bit more than a half mile away and walked. But because I cannot do that, MSU's arrangements for parking on this day prevented me from attending an important academic event. In other words, their parking arrangements and plans altered the "transaction space" in a way which crippled me - which prevented me from attending this conference in ways that other more "able-bodied" students could have.

Are there dozens of ways MSU could have easily solved this? Of course, from reserving spaces there to having remote spaces and shuttles - this is easy if the university cared at all. Could Mr. Parkerson have been polite and helpful instead of rude and clueless? No doubt. Might the university - one of the world's largest research institutions - have wanted to demonstrate that two events could happen on its campus on the same day? I would have thought so. But that's all besides the point.

The issue is that deliberately or through negligence, through ignorance or a lack of employee training, Michigan State University altered the way I interact with the campus in a way which turned my physical condition into a disability. The university altered the transaction in a way which prevented me from accessing my educational needs.

Schools do this all the time. Today was just very personal.

I drove the 90 miles back home. I'll write my letter to the university president, and perhaps my complaint to the US Department of Education's Office of Civil Rights before the weekend is out.

I have to complain, or next week they may do the same thing to someone else.

- Ira Socol